Laurence A. Rickels
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Copyright © 2001, Laurence A. Rickels, all rights reserved
A death wish list of resistances, blocked transmissions, unexamined transferences happened on my way to this essay. In Fall 2000 I was contacted by a former student (beware of former students!) who offered that the firm for which she was working, Hyper Television, was interested in interviewing me as part of a web presentation of The Sixth Sense. One hit of good transference and I reversed my decision not to see the movie again, a piece of the resistance that rose up in me (when I saw the film the year before) against the doubling bind the film imposes on its audience to watch it one more time. In my 1999 class on vampirism this resistance prompted a transference transgression: I threw out and away the surprise ending to illustrate a point about the apparent ease (and I would like to emphasize the "parent" in this easygoing assumption) with which we identify with the undead. The auditorium holding 900 students loudly masked and marked my betrayal—and thus we were caught together in the act of identifying with the unDad. What finally came out in the watch, in the no-longer-deferred second viewing, was my precise sense of seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time because I was seeing it again.
The acquisition of this precise sense—a sixth sense—after a delay occasioned by resistance (or already inside resistance) led me to make a series of connections crossing my mind at that time. I had received an invitation to contribute to a volume on horror movies, psychoanalysis, and the critical resistance to psychoanalytic interpretations shortly before I started teaching my undergraduate horror film course. A couple of weeks into the quarter, under the constraining order of time, I decided to double feature some of the films and my readings of them in the context of my same-quarter graduate offering entitled "Hegel With Shmear." I found I was just a key stroke away from commemoration of my no longer postponed encounter with The Sixth Sense. My in-one-year-and-out-the-other study of the death cults in mass media culture led me to and down the ways in which The Sixth Sense gets in touch with itself as horror film and thus as self-reflexive film in the setting of its double provenance as technical and occult medium. The injunction to look twice before seeing I earmarked with readings of Hegel. This became the split-level framing of my reception of the film.
At Hyper Television the interviewer was grooving on my double medium reading of The Sixth Sense. A "sixth sense" evokes the sense of supernatural powers but also the extra sense of each mediatized and extended sense. Occult and technical media occupy interchangeable places within the genealogy of media that Freud's exploration of the work of mourning and his attendant work of analogy opened up. That is why every horror film is self-reflexively compatible with psychoanalysis: the horror film cannot touch on the relationship to the dead without touching its own media parts which, already contaminated by haunting partings, are also portraits of psychic functioning.
The former student, who attended the interview, told me on the way out that she had forgotten about all the attention I paid to media relations or analogues in my psychoanalytic readings. I noted that resistance. But I didn't hear the suck sounds of repression vacuum packing away my remarks that, applauded in the moment, were in no time dot com and gone. What is popularly associated with resistable (or irresistible) psychoanalysis is sexological interpretation (in which representations of violence, for example, do double duty as symptoms of repression). Resistance to my spookulations (even or especially in the industries self-entitled to represent the horror genre) is resistance to the other psychoanalysis, one not in trouble for sexual inferences. What I have considered (at least since my first book Aberrations of Mourning) as the cryptological trajectory of Freud's thought (where what the secrecy is all about concerns the unmarked sites and way-stations of hidden and preserved losses) is also one of the main target areas of resistance to Freud's thought. In contrast to the view of horror or monstrosity as symptomatic of sexual repression—and of the horror movie as a sex-therapeutic session and wedding-night initiation—which, with joking on the side, cannot but be accepted, it is the inside viewing of the horror film's overlap with the "underworld of psychoanalysis" (as Freud designated the source and target of resistance to his science in 1914, in the closing line of "On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement") that is unacceptable, a goner without saying.
Given the sensurround of resistances with which my relationship to the film kept coming complete, The Sixth Sense seemed, then, to occupy the then current crossing of my thoughts on psychoanalysis and horror cinema. But is The Sixth Sense even a horror film? Anne Rice called it a "classic" horror film (I know this because her praise for my book The Vampire Lectures was part of the same fan-phone-line outgoing message, dated September 24, 1999). I take "classic" to refer to pre-Psycho horror. But while the Psycho effect was still with us, even earlier films, like Phantom of the Opera (1925), Mad Love (1935), or Frankenstein (1931), seemed determined to anticipate, give access to, the excess that hit the screen in 1960. For at least two decades horror films (notably the slasher and splatter pictures) were absorbing and re-releasing the shocks of cutting edge (as in knifing and editing) that make the shower scene—in which our death wishes could not but fill in what went sight unseen. By the 1990s, however, this Psycho monopolization and metabolization of horror (which had, however, given horror the edge as the only genre left in which innovations were still made in Hollywood) began to fade away. The treatments had over the years secured a cure.
I probably dismissed The Sixth Sense at first sight (unseen!) as another example of the living ending of horror film following the totally successful overkill containment of Psycho. Displacements upwards in such highend films as Silence of the Lambs (1991) had only underscored that what was once the horror movie had been put to rest within the middlebrowbeat that Hollywood must forever please and police. But when I watched The Sixth Sense the second time around it seemed, on second thought, that like The Blair Witch Project (1999) it was engaged in a reformatting of the end of horror post-Psycho as renewal of contact with the medium as sight unseen. Both films, though certainly in different ways, also exceeded the frame of the single screening (as contained in, as containing, a body of work) by networking with outer-corpus experiences of media manipulation and the two-timing of surprise. This vaster frame—which embraces the meantime—comes out of the new interactive media, and contains in advance side effects or symptoms that once developed all down the receiving line of films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which were precisely in themselves, left to themselves, uncontainable. (Please note that a far, far better translation of "unheimlich" than "uncanny" is "uncontained.")
I begin again with Hegel to mark in The Sixth Sense the beginning that must come again before it can be seen to begin. The Hegel of double beginnings gives short Schrift to his socio-psycho-political reception (which already took him to the movies) and inhabits instead the long haul and repetition (Wiederholung) that drags Hegel remnants into resonance with Freud, both parties struck up to resound together in Theodor Adorno and in Derrida. It is a beginning that presupposes an exercise in reading for "influence" in all the wrong places. But what is bad for love or misrecognition could be good enough for thinking through the loop of recognition.
The one kernel I would note in the greater rereading assignment is the claim that Hegel in fact invented rereading (or reading again): ranging from the requirement that the reader reread the whole of The Phenomenology of Spirit (owner's manual directions that in fact cannot be thrown away) to the force of rereading that is within each philosophical sentence as part of Hegel's design. Observe how Hegel gives meta-commentary on his foregoing sentence as sentence (to be read again): "Formally, what has been said can be expressed thus: the general nature of the judgment or proposition, which involves the distinction of Subject and Predicate, is destroyed by the speculative proposition, and the proposition of identity which the former becomes contains the counter-thrust against that subject-predicate relationship" (38). By analyzing the philosophical sentence as the basic disunity and unit of philosophy's mode of understanding, he gives us an inside view of his own sentence (in which the subject is both grammatically and biographically—indeed autobiographically—constituted). "The philosophical proposition, since it is a proposition, leads one to believe that the usual subject-predicate relation obtains, as well as the usual attitude towards knowing. But the philosophical content destroys this attitude and this opinion. We learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowing to go back to the proposition, and understand it in some other way" (39). One throwaway sentence about philosophical discourse in general is a giveaway: it marks the spotlight Hegel is in with his own invention. "Here we see the reason behind one particular complaint so often made ...: that so much has to be read over and over [in philosophical writings] before they can be understood" (39).
The rereading I am referring to here in Hegel's name is not the supplement to the exhaustion of memory brought on, for example, by Kant's discourse. The point is: you will not have read Hegel's sentence until you have read it the second time. Rather than rereading, which theoretically can be raised to the nth power as allegory of understanding, I should say second reading, one more reading. If this is the case, then there would appear to be a limitation that Hegel's discourse sets itself in order to be original in the second position which in turn can never drop off the top of the chart of rereading. Much can be elided or affirmed, in theory, by the exclusion or implication of the gap that must be survived in order to read the second time for the first time. If rereading is the future, then reading again to read for the first time refers to the recent past which, as Adorno advised Walter Benjamin in a letter dated August 2, 1935, is the most repressed past and therefore the primeval past, the primal time of catastrophe, of disappearance and return, which reading again but for the first time would precisely (and in every sense) contain.
The Sixth Sense packs a surprise ending that sends the viewer through the flashback cycle in part given or modeled at the end of the film but for the most part issued as the requirement to watch the movie again. Roland Barthes once selected a novel by Agatha Christie as one of the limit concepts of narrative authority: the first-person narrator of this detection novel reveals himself, at the end of "his" narrative, to be the murderer. But how does this succeed except as a deliberate trick, one that comes cheap; how would the thoughts of the narrator which are alone with themselves remain perfectly dissociated from the truth of his crime. The Sixth Sense risks the same disappointment in giving us the thrill of not having seen the film the first time around. We find out that we have been seeing the story through the eyes wide shut of a dead man who did not know that he was dead. But we were not given false leads, visualizations of lies as in Stage Fright (1950) or The Usual Suspects (1995). Granted the inside view of the psyches on screen, it is a double deception to keep out of frame the suppressed thoughts of the truth that inevitably cross the mind's I of the deceiver. The perspective of someone undead or dead who doesn't know that he is dead is more compelling, now as surprise, now as fiction, than the outright deception involved in hiding the lies of both first-person narrators and of the seeing-I perspectives given in film.
That is why The Sixth Sense could be so carefully constructed and edited to cut to the quick and the dead, or, as the Video Bonus Edition amply documents in interviews with those involved, "to be sure that the film held up the second time." The flashbacks are referred to here, by those in the know, as "missed moments." By the time the film becomes a detection novelty, as underscored by the "Rules And Clues" given in the Bonus Edition, all that's missing is wrapped up in the game of recognition.
When you watch the film for the second time you do more than catch up with double meanings in each scene that leave room for the surprise ending after all. The film works not only because of the care taken that each scene does not give up the ghost but plays only on flashback as compatible with the psychologist's invisibility, his new closure. We are invited to watch each scene again and register the presence or absence (same difference) of the ghost. But (once) more to the point, when you watch it again, you are watching the film for the first time.
The bottom line the viewer discovers the second time around is that the film's two-timing succeeds only or precisely because, when we go to the movies, we see dead people. In the meantime, in the recent past to come, any live image or living person could have given up the ghost left flickering as the recorded image of the now deceased. The last thing we see in The Sixth Sense, by the time we, too, see dead people, is the video of the wedding of Malcolm (Bruce Willis) and Anna (Olivia Williams), the video, as we already saw, but with different eyes, that Anna liked to let run while at home lonely.
The double whammy that allows the film to begin again, but for the first time, succeeds also because action and discourse are therapeutically framed. The first time, when Malcolm returns home, we join him in watching the video record of his wedding day still running while Anna is taking a shower. We take down the scene (even before Malcolm discovers her anti-depressants in the bathroom cabinet) as the measure of her sense of coming second to Malcolm's work as child psychologist. That she never came second, the one thing Malcolm needs to let his wife know before he can go, that is, even after he knows what she knows, that he is dead, is the kind of reassurance that fits the living dynamic of their couples therapy. Either time around, the problem Anna has with her husband, dead or alive, is a problem that is living on. At the start of the film, in the afterglow of the awards ceremony, Anna emphasizes to Malcolm how hard he's worked, putting everything else second to his work, including her, that his earned recognition brings some struggle to a close. At the time he doesn't contradict in so many words her sense of coming second. But now he is given a second chance to give her a second chance. The outside chance of getting a second chance is the link (between the living and the dead) to the mourning process with which the movie (even or especially in its two-timing) appears coterminous. The realization of this ghost of a chance is what successful mourning would accomplish if it did not already require it.
When Malcolm recognizes that Cole (Haley Joel Osment) may after all be in ghostly contact with the departed, he is also given a second chance of sorts to make restitution to Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg), his former patient, who shot Malcolm at the start of the film, one year earlier, right before killing himself. Vincent, as freaked-out teenager, charged that Malcolm had been dead wrong all along in his treatment of the child Vincent. While Malcolm was working to relieve the boy of anxiety resulting from the divorce of his parents, he simply never understood, Vincent says, what it is really like when you're alone. This charge (as unidentified crying objection) hits the spot Malcolm is in with one strike and he's out to find a second chance. A year passes and Malcolm has a new patient, Cole, to whom he is first introduced through case notes that have been transferred to him for his second opinion or because he is taking over the treatment of this case. In the notes he finds the same diagnosis as the one he kept in mind while working with Vincent. Malcolm picks up with Cole where he left off with Vincent. At the very instant he discovers that Cole is indeed in contact with the dead, he knows that this was Vincent's "curse."
The more literal sense of the second time, the time the film requires to be seen only when seen again, attends Malcolm's first contact with the dead or undead. He plays back the tape recording of a session with Vincent, when the patient was Cole's age, a taping which happens to include on its record the silent time that followed when Malcolm left the room to take an important call. But the recording of the patient all alone picked up sounds of invisible others in the dead air. This becomes audible only by repeatedly rewinding and playing back the tape. Now we hear how the allegedly anxious boy was in fact surrounded by the entreating, badgering, beckoning dead. Cole's challenge to Malcolm—"How can you help me if you don't believe me? Some magic is real"—sends the psychologist to the evidence of his reels. The Sixth Sense thus turns up the volume on the "Voice Phenomenon," the post-World-War-II pursuit of contact with the dead through the tape recording of silence, and the rewind and playback of the long-distant voices ultimately discernible in the white noise.
But even if the boundaries between the living and the dead seem thus blended beyond time's dominion, the media death cult itself could not have emerged any earlier: magnetic tape technology, which was first realized by German engineers during World War II, spread world-wide only after the total war was over and out. The new technology gave the movies a first fully functional and realistically realizable audio portion. The Sixth Sense touches its sound medium and rings up a genealogical moment of contact with the dead sparked by a new medium's first introduction. Tape technology at the same time appeared to realize, functionalize, even prove the pre-digital-TV fantasies of surveillance and live transmission; in contrast to film and photography these newer media and media-effects all suggested the possibility of a ghost-less or, in other words, transference-free transmission. But the proof that comes only when the record speaks for itself is also undone in the same suggestion box. Whatever you think you have via live transmission or as surveillance you have only on tape. Only thus can the evidence of the senses become part of the record and let the recording show. But what's also on the recording, in the splitting of a second, and thus technically in time even for so-called live transmissions, is the counter-testimony of simulation, falsification, and haunting. First a certain Friedrich Jürgensen, then Konstantin Raudive (both these founding figures of the "Voice Phenomenon" had been displaced from Eastern to Western Europe by the events of World War II) used the tape recorder as the answering machine of the dead.
In Sweden one day, Jürgensen decided to leave the tape recorder running outside, in his absence, to capture bird song. When he played back the tape he thought he could make out ghostly voices. He kept on playing back the tape, over and over again, until finally he could clearly hear his deceased mother's message to him. Peter Bander, another person displaced by World War II, served as editor of the popular English-language edition of Raudive's definitive work on the Voice Phenomenon, entitled Breakthrough. Bander was converted when he, too, played back tapes and heard his deceased mother talking to him in German. His ears were thus opened to the blast from every other's recent past.
Thus tape recording picked up noise that, upon repeated replay, released the audio portion of our communications with the dead. There was already a visual portion served by photography's ability to register and record the ghost otherwise invisible at séances. Before tape technology started playing back the voices of the dead, there was already a telegraphic audio portion in place which, at the same time as photography's first reception, followed the different beat (the dead beat) of poltergeist sounds or signals that only the occult medium in attendance could Morse decode. The first scene of tension between Cole and his mother (Toni Collette) in the kitchen over breakfast, at least the second time around, refers to poltergeist powers of making all that belongs in the home, pop open, fall, break, or resound. Together with Cole's mother (who is plugged into earphones of musical recording), we see the otherworldly slash of light that marks all the photographs of Cole pinned up against the wall. It could have been a flaw in the film or a flash-effect: but surely not in all photos selected from the album of life and now viewed again, together, for the first time.
Psychoanalysis Gets Into Motion Pictures
All-out rejection of the underworld of disturbed relations with the dead, the undead, the long-distant, who in turn haunt all our relations and transmissions of long distance (the distance we go to keep in touch with the dead we at the same time flee) is, finally, hard to maintain. Thus we will always give a double hearing to Malcolm's one-way comment to wife or widow Anna: "I know I've been a little distant." Horror films have always admitted and relied on the double occupancy in the same Complex of Oedipal plots and secret burial plots (which remained precisely non-superimposable one onto the other). In the relations of tension and diversion between these two plots lay the horror film's ability to administer shocks which at the same time contained themselves as inoculative shots of release and closure.
In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility," Benjamin argued that, already in 1936, the environment was so saturated with technologization that we could enter directly into this visual field, this new reality, the way a surgeon skips the interpersonal relationship with the patient to penetrate directly into the visibility of the opened-up body. The surgeon is thus the slasher mascot of how first contact with film and its extra-sensory reception turned us into intrapsychic players who no longer needed to take everything so interpersonally. Benjamin gives the film viewer, maker, and actor this cutting room floor of a new visibility that's part test drive, part seeing-I probe:
But the cut and splice of techno identification also requires a certain safety zoning brought to us by the good gadget loving Benjamin describes in his 1939 essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." The click, dial spin, flick, or snap of the on/off connection is the point of contact where direct traumatic techno impact is kept on a short control release, and gets administered instead in staggered dose-size shocks or shots. Thus the snap of photography introduces into the moment taken a "posthumous shock" (175). The gadget connection allows us to identify the moment of contact, date it, commemorate it precisely as forgettable. In addition to (or in between) remembering and forgetting there is, then, the suffer zone (and zoning out) of remembering to forget.
In these two media essays which openly admit allegiance to Freud's science, Benjamin functionalizes (in large measure) his own hallmark allegories of rereading and renaming as a therapy of double take. In the essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin gets his shock from Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But what holds together his allegorical rescues and his media therapies is the earlier encounter both with Freud's "Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)" and the text by Daniel Paul Schreber that Freud analyzes in his study of paranoia.
In "Delay of the Machine Age," in 1933, Hanns Sachs, as follow-up to Freud's analysis of Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness and to Victor Tausk's essay "On the Origin of the 'Influencing Machine' in Schizophrenia," derives from these extreme cases (along lines that anticipate Benjamin's shock tropes) the psychic conditioning all of us undergo before we can invent or face technology on the outside. In other words, the external machinic aspects of technology are secondary to a certain psychic ready positioning which lies at the origin of technology. In the extreme cases studied by Freud and Tausk, all too-close and ultimately uncanny relations with the (missing) body must be escaped through the hatching of paranoid plots of machine and mummy control. These delusional systems alternated between the archaeological or funereal and the techno enforcing of total control over body and psyche. These were also the two genres of delusion formation that Freud defined as endopsychic, as affording inside views of psychic functioning and even of his theories of the workings of the psychic apparatus. (These endopsychic perceptions provide the point of overlap between Freud's analysis of the Schreber case and Benjamin's reading of allegory in The Origin of the German Mourning Play.) According to Sachs, the advent of external technologies maintains the necessary safe remove at which the (missing) body must, via projection, be kept. The delay Sachs theorizes is also in the machine age, where it functions like the gadget connection Benjamin was making, keeping the shock of the techno and the return of the mummy on a schedule of control release.
The cannibalistic metabolism of mourning or melancholia introduced by Freud became Karl Abraham's specialization, which was transmitted to and through Melanie Klein, in whose work and school, however, it got lost in the shuttling between metabolic fantasies and every transference imaginable. Ella Freeman-Sharpe maintained diplomatic relations with both the Kleinian and the Anna Freudian encampments in British analysis in her day. Where she admits Klein's influence, she at the same time keeps the borrowed notion isolated from its local tendency to lose itself, and restores it instead to the Freudian relationship to the work of mourning. As Laura Marcus informed me in Fall 2000, Sharpe trained in Berlin with Hanns Sachs, the first follower of Freud to address the media in (psycho)history along the same lines (of production) as the media operating inside psychotic delusions. This transference circuit through Sachs's following or understanding of the "psychic apparatus" is part of the wiring of psychoanalysis to film in Sharpe's works.
In her 1930 essay "Certain Aspects of Sublimation and Delusion," Sharpe unfolds a psychohistory of the artistic media (for which film serves as her own most up-to-date example of artistic production) which was packed up tight inside its primal scene, the 1877 discovery in Spain of prehistoric cave drawings of bison and men in masks: "A Spaniard, interested in problems of the evolution of culture, was exploring a cave on his estate at Altamira, in Northern Spain. He was searching for new examples of flint and carved bone of which he had already found specimens. His little daughter was with him. ... The child was scrambling over the rocks and suddenly called out 'Bulls, bulls!' She pointed to the ceiling, so low that he could touch it with his hand. He lifted the lamp and saw on the uneven surface numbers of bison and other animals drawn with great realism and painted in bright colors. ... At that dramatic moment of recognition in the bowel of the cave a common impulse unites the ancient hunter artist and modern man. Between them lies the whole evolution of civilization, but the evolution that separates them springs from the impulse that unites them." The Hunter Artists of the Reindeer Age and the Spaniard in search of more bric-a-brac for his hobbyist scholarship meet across 17,000 years on the common ground of an impulse "to reconstruct, to make a representation of, life that has passed away" (1930: 125): "Behind the animal we have the man. So I see in the drawings of primitive man, in the animals, and men with animal masks, the first attempt in art to resolve a conflict raging around the problem of food and death" (127).
In her 1937 book Dream Analysis, film is integrated by Sharpe (as by her patients in the case material she presents) as the contemporary and appropriate analogue or symbol for "the internal dream picture mechanism," specifically that of dream dramatization. But before addressing the movies in or as dreams, she interprets a movie reference brought to session:
Here Sharpe performs a genealogical condensation in her own writing. The early histories of cinema and of psychoanalysis wore training wheels. The train was the first techno means of transport to travel the dotted line between trauma and entertainment. The roller coaster thrill of transport placed us in a position of preparedness for a train wreck, which was, before World War I, the most common exciting cause of many brands of hysteria or traumatic neurosis (like "railway spine") for men and women alike.
Freud's primal viewing of his mother's undressed body (shortly after the unmournable death of his baby brother Julius) was all aboard the train from where in no time he saw the smoke stacks out there as props of an underworld. Surprise! Freud suffered from train phobia in adulthood. But the train also entered his work of analogy (together with the telephone) when it came time to describe the special kind of association and listening characteristic of the analytic session. Freud gives us a demonstration of how to get the patient to free associate. "'Act as though, for instance, you were a traveler sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside'" ("On Beginning the Treatment," SE 12: 135).
When the film camera was mounted on moving trains the "traveling shot" was introduced. In turn, the frontal shot of the train advancing steadily toward the audience to arrive somewhere just behind the last row in the theater was another early or primal example of film's administration of thrill shocks or inoculative shots of otherwise traumatizing catastrophe. This all gets swallowed and expelled in the doubling zone between food and death.
In Dream Analysis, Sharpe switches from the unconscious reception of cinema to the movies in dreams. First her patient's anxiety dream.
Anxiety was sparked by the actor's failure to remember his lines. But Sharpe decides instead, between these lines, to play the dream's backside in his head.
In the essay on art and sublimation, Sharpe turned to incorporation to answer the question, What stands behind the hunted, haunting animal or, in other words, behind the crowded intersection between food and death? It is ultimately a figure of parental guidance that can be raised to the power to haunt. "Art, I suggest, is a sublimation rooted in the primal identification with the parents. That identification is a magical incorporation of the parents, a psychical happening which runs parallel to what has been for long ages repressed, i.e., actual cannibalism" (135). This parallel run of sublimation's second-stage alertness to the living past has been running civilization right up against the movie screen: "Of all arts, the last, the moving picture, is destined for the widest human appeal. The resources of science and art have converged in answer to man's deepest necessity and will consummate the most satisfying illusion the world has known. Future generations will be able to see the past as it really was. The great figures will move and live before them as they did even in life. They will speak with their authentic voices" (136). Whereas superego extols historical accuracy for future generations, ego, stuck on the recent past, sees dead people.
The parental meat in Sharpe's argument refers not only to the moments when Freud goes cannibalistic but also to Freud's understanding of the father relation as a "construction of analysis" (SE 17: 185) that begins (in session) popping up in the workings of the transference. Freud's work of analogy or genealogy of media begins with the coupling of transference and the printing press in a place already occupied by ghosts. The repetition of intimate intrigue in his own same-sex friendships prompted Freud, at first recognition, to address all the recurring figures in his set drama or trauma as revenants. When he first theorized the holding-pattern phenomena in terms of transference, Freud addressed the "stereotyping" of always the same relationship, which just like the "cliché" used in printing, can be "reprinted" again and again (SE 12: 100). By implication and exclusion, film (like music among the artistic media) is the techno-media analogue (or boundary concept) of Freud's theories of psychic functioning that is all-encompassing. Even factoring in or out the impact of digitalization on its editing complex, which was the determining force in film making in the (recent) past, film remains the culmination and endpoint of projective media that got their start with the printing press.
On television, in contrast, Cole's bullying classmate stars in a commercial which sells a cough suppressant, which sells the overcoming or suppression of coughing and its stammering, coughing associations—with coffin, for example. But the inclusion of Malcolm's audio tape record and, at the end, of the video tape of Malcolm and Anna's wedding crosses ghost-free or transference-free liveness with the cemetery of legibility, transference, projection, mourning.
In The Case of California I proposed that if Hegel's discourse could be read as having placed an embargo on the invention of audio recording (and the gramophone in particular)—and this proviso was earmarked as Friedrich Kittler's consideration—then Freud's concept of the transference could be tuned in on its set as exclusion of television. This delay in the admission of "television" accompanied Freud's efforts to address psychosis, first as limit concept, then and increasingly (after World War I) as the shifting borderline between neurosis and psychosis but inside psychosis which thus kept on opening wider to transference interventions and interpretations.
The medium that got its start with the printing press and culminated in film projection admits recognition of ghost appearances in the time frame of double vision. But the tape medium would appear to give up its ghosts only to the third ear of relentless re-listening. Before the happy medium of digitalization, the audio portion in film was, as tape medium, in fact a foreign body. The audio tape recording, a double that always comes life size, was the major shareholder of the fantasies of live or life's transmission and of self-evidence of the senses. In The Sixth Sense the pictures on the screen move to transcribe liveness within the delay and double take of becoming legible for the first time when viewed for the second time.
After his rewind and playback session, the psychologist can ask the haunted boy the saving question: What do you think they want from you? Malcolm relinquishes the listening post of his own therapeutic authority to the boy, who in turn will give the psychologist couples-therapy advice that at the end reveals to him—and to us—that Malcolm is one of the ghostly dead. Where Malcolm repeatedly rewinds and plays back the static of the audio portion accompanying the projection of "bad" ghosts Cole already sees clearly, Malcolm's advice to give the ghosts a second chance leads Cole not only to hear them, but in listening to them, even help them out (over and out).
Malcolm, the good ghost (who agrees to stay with Cole until he falls asleep, for example), has been coming in loud and clear all this time, thus marking an exception and fitting the rule of a projective distinction between benign and vengeful spirits. This rule is already in place in the setting apart of Cole's relationship to his grandmother's ghost. A placeholder for this distinction between good and bad ghosts is introduced with Cole's question to Malcolm (whether we know it or not, or rather, whenever we know it), which raises ancestral ghosts, but in some other place: "Are you a good doctor?"
M. Night Shyamalan belongs to a tradition of film directors (as do, for example, Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick) predestined by family tradition to become doctors. Usually it is a father and son thing. But in Shyamalan's case, as the director underscores in interview (in the Video Bonus Edition), everyone else in his family is a physician, with a life-to-death range from Obstetrician to Coroner. Shyamalan turned to film making during early adolescence. He describes his childhood as a perpetual anxiety state that he sought to represent and contain in The Sixth Sense. And yet the timing of his primal example of what scared him suggests a closer fit of his fearfulness with the early-adolescent decision against making the cut of medicine and for pursuing, instead, a medium that is a cut above—at a greater sublimational remove from—medicine's proximity to murder.
The image of this double onset, which makes it into pictures because it is already filmic, fantastic, hallucinatory, is the father's vision just before he proceeded to enter and secure the home which the family back from a trip to the mall found opened wide at the front entrance: he imagined some crazy person sitting on his bed just waiting for him. But it was his son who was spooked for a long time to come. What became, in The Sixth Sense, the Vincent scene was planned by Shyamalan as the gun shot that would be heard throughout the film (which opened on the director's birthday).
The vision fits the murderous reproach of a kid ruined by the misdiagnosis of the helping professional. But the murder, cloaked and deferred by the controlled ambiguity of the entire film, is also the medium of reconciliation between the psychologist and both his charges.
Shyamalan puts himself in The Sixth Sense as "doctor for a day"—but as doctor alert to the scratches on Cole's body as signs of child abuse. Although with digitalization film editing is no longer literally cutting, the cutting edge or effect still guides Shyamalan's aim, just the same, to "get under everybody's skin." Shyamalan refers to the staying power of The Exorcist as an example of film going skin deep. With The Sixth Sense he too succeeded in creating a cultural phenomenon that defined its time and place. "I see dead people," for example, had entered the discourse of everyday life.
But first the phrase enters the film either as resistance or as transference misinterpretation. Just as Malcolm misdiagnosed Vincent so he sets out to misdiagnose Cole as suffering anxiety in consequence of parental divorce. In his sessions with Cole, Malcolm addresses the missing place of the boy's father. At the happy beginning of the film, Anna underscores that the award plaque addresses Malcolm, the recipient of this honor, as Philadelphia's son, the chosen one. There is a father-and-son buddy movie in everyone's life, and to raise it to consciousness as conflict and then resolve it is Malcolm's recognizably psychoanalytic strategy with his two haunted patients, Vincent and Cole. The famous phrase seems to go against Malcolm's manifest tracking of the transference in their therapeutic relationship.
In a therapy game Malcolm initiates to gain Cole's trust, all the steps forward the psychologist wins by guessing right concern Cole's secrecy-burdened relations with his mother; but the steps back Malcolm loses result from his attempts to tag Cole's longing for the father and situate their own transferential relationship in the paternal domain. Malcolm guesses that the watch Cole is wearing is a gift from his father. Wrong. His father forgot it, or left it behind; it's broken. He's a good student who never gets into trouble. Wrong. He got in trouble for drawing violent pictures at school. "See that on TV, Cole?" Cole takes another step back.
When Malcolm first makes contact with Cole, they discuss the over-size glasses the little boy is wearing. The glasses belonged to his father; he removed the lenses because they hurt his eyes. When Malcolm asks Cole if he ever wrote automatic "upset words" before his father left, he never gets an answer. Instead Cole asks why Malcolm's so sad. Malcolm admits that his marriage is shaky. According to the logic Freud develops in "The Taboo of Virginity," the problems a husband has with his (first) wife he is still having with his father. That is why, Freud recommends, second marriages have a better chance (the second chance) at success (SE 11: 206).
Malcolm's therapeutic work, in spite of itself, its failure, ends up injecting into our relations with the dead, the relationship to the Dad. I see Dad people. We saw (or wished) Dad dead. This is one point of identification in our primal scene that is at the same time our inoculative shot at getting out from under the unmournably dead.
Among the so-called absurd dreams Freud discusses in The Interpretation of Dreams there is one kind that "does not express ridicule and derision. It indicates an extreme degree of repudiation, and so makes it possible to represent a repressed thought which the dreamer would prefer to regard as utterly unthinkable" (SE 5: 430). To "elucidate dreams of this kind" one must keep in mind "the fact that dreams do not differentiate between what is wished and what is real." Then Freud gives an example of this kind of dream:
Freud elucidates: "This dream only becomes intelligible if, after the words 'but he had really died' we insert 'in consequence of the dreamer's wish', and if we explain that what 'he did not know' was that the dreamer had had this wish." While the dreamer was nursing his sick father, he had entertained "a merciful thought that death might put an end to his sufferings." But after his father finally passed away, the son became mourning sick of his earlier "sympathetic wish" and was consequently subject to "unconscious self-reproach, as though by means of it he had really helped to shorten the sick man's life." This development from positive to negative follows out a regression. "A stirring up of the dreamer's earliest infantile impulses against his father made it possible for this self-reproach to find expression as a dream." And yet its expression pulls up short before its absurdity. But then Freud brings the dreamer and us to view the dream again, now that we know that the dreamer was death wish bound to keep seeing the Dad to his death and to keep it, sight unseen, a secret from himself. But what makes the thought bearable, the second time around, is that Freud introduces the early record of ambivalence toward the father, the third person, that everyone was stuck on and which represents both our need and our ability to mourn. This dream can therefore be distinguished from other dreams involving the dreamer's dead loved ones in which the repeated (potentially endless) alternation of the dead between dead or alive again represents "indifference on the part of the dreamer. ('It's all the same to me whether he's alive or dead.') This indifference is, of course, not real but merely desired" (431). Here ambivalence as a whole is repudiated and given dream representation, whereas in the dream about the father who is back because he doesn't know that he is dead, one surprise revision of the sentence will show, the second time around, that it already contains the overcharged wish. To be able to identify (with) the dead or Dad who doesn't know that he is dead, the dreamer acknowledges and performs the early and inevitable death wish. And then the dreamer knows that what the father doesn't know didn't hurt him.
If Freud always seems to turn with the force of inevitability to the relationship to the father in his interpretations, it is not because that relationship was a living standard, whether in society at large or in the biographies of his patients. The "patriarchal" interpretation of mourning for the father does not reflect whatever was out there but instead performs what it introduces. The father's death is the original transference neurosis. In elaborations on the transference in therapy, Freud announced the creation, in the course of the sessions, of an artificial illness (the transference neurosis) that would however contain a treatable or inoculative dosage of the original illness. By addressing the artificial illness—mourning for the father—as curable, Freud suggested one could treat by inoculation the presenting illness which was thus, on its own, precisely untreatable (and unmournable).
Psychoanalysis aims to lift resistance and raise unconscious thoughts to the power of conscious understanding. Uncovering the objectionable unconscious thought, for example, is therefore not the main focus of analysis: instead the aim is to remove the patient's resistance to the consciousness raising itself. The transference, which is always also resistance, is the force along for the resolution of the transference.
Malcolm, as or in the transference, helps Cole overcome the resistance that, starting from scratches in the record, on his body, comes at him as impenetrable broadcasts of ghostly vengeful static. Cole accepts that he sees, wishes people Dad or dead and, in listening to Malcolm, the Dad transference or ghost, he gets the rise out of the unconscious that places him in a position to clear away the pathogenic force of his missing or aiming against the Dad (but with ambivalence, as when he asks to play pretend with Malcolm that they will see each other again, probably tomorrow). Cole then proceeds to put to rest a series of maternal specters and resolves thereby the impasse at which he and his mother were heading each other off.
Sharpe draws a bottom line through the transference. If the psyche's castro-intestinal complex, the desire and the dread of what Sharpe compares to "rummaging," is not addressed, not contained in the therapeutic alliance, then the transference bottoms out as insurmountable resistance. Consider how Vincent pops up as someone or something that wouldn't stay down in the bathroom where he has carefully undressed himself for the showdown with Malcolm. Just as the surgical intervention, once it pulls back from completing the act of murder and heals the opened-up body instead, "nullifies the anxiety of repressed sadism, so the desire to heal the mind is a further extension of that reparation act" ("The Analyst," 17). The psychoanalyst's "task of eliciting, evoking, finding out what is in another person's mind bears a close analogy to the primitive desire to find out and bring out the desired possessions that are inside another's body" (18). That is why Malcolm first gets under Cole's skin by joining the boy in wondering just what the other woman who's off with Cole's Dad does while working in her toll booth when she has to go to the bathroom. Malcolm also scores contact with Cole when he uses "the S word."
Transference is where The Sixth Sense grabs us. Our resistance to the film's intervention in or reinvention of the eternally, internally transferred relationship draws from the same source as that which makes us the film's captive audience. Resistance in transference is repetition. The Sixth Sense raises repetition to consciousness as difference or delay in the acquisition of its sense. The second time around we see that our transferences are ghosts and we see that we are able to see that much because we identify with dead or Dad people and with the seeing-I of cinema. Reflecting on the mass of seemingly all-over-the-place encounters with the dead on tape, Peter Bander cuts to the case of mourning: "I have come to the conclusion that the stronger the affinity has been between two people during their lifetime, the greater the chance of a voice manifesting itself after one of them has died" (30). That consigns the primal reach of the haunted sensorium to the recent past, always the most repressed passage, the one most pressing to return.
The only dead person in The Sixth Sense to make contact with Cole whom he knew in life, and who thus represents a loss to him (and to his mother), is the grandmother (and mother). With the exception of the boy's grandmother, the ghosts are dead people in transit; they're not necessarily eternal or Heaven-bound. Instead something from this life makes them stick around, but only for the time being, until their business is finished. Then they accept that they are dead: we accept that they are dead.
Cole's mother's one sense of certainty for herself and for her son has always been that nothing interrupts or veils their face-to-face relationship. "Look at my face, I was not thinking something bad about you. Got it?" But there is one crack in her mirroring mothering that registers as her disturbed grieving over her own mother's death. It sparks the supernatural light writing that cuts across every photograph of Cole.
Before we are left with Malcolm putting himself to rest and us to the test of identification with the undead, we leave Cole putting through a communication from his grandmother to her daughter, his mother. Up to this point, Cole's relationship to the good dead was fundamentally trans-parent, dedicated to his grandmother, in doubling circumvention of the static of Oedipal relations. The blinding spot in the face-to-face relationship wipes out when Cole transmits a message from grandmother to mother: Yes, her daughter had always made her proud, every day. With this proof of Cole's extra long-distance sense, the mother's blocked grief is overcome. Mourning can now begin to complete itself in her case.
Once Cole took Malcolm's counseling and started listening to the ghosts that appeared to harass him, he immediately took on a mission of rescue and justice that took him (and us) directly face-to-face with the poisoning mother, the split-off reversal of the nurturing mother. But first the transmission is the video-taping together of a dying girl's record of evidence of abuse and Cole's play function on her behalf at her funeral. The unidentified dying object or ghost thus reaches out with a media "and" of justice and delivers to her father the murder charge that saves her sister and grants her the identification that lets her rest her case. But what is important in this transmission in Cole's case is not bound up (prequel style) with the superheroics of Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000). What counts is that Cole has discovered in the big picture of the dead, bigger than the family portrait of ghosts, that the mother, his or her own, is not the poisoner. The image of the poisoning mother was thus brought into focus, made certain, and sent away to some other place, but one of rest (in one piece) and containment. At the other end of the tape transmission that a ghost had to hand to Cole there is the dead girl's Dad, essential to the transmission going through. The father steps in precisely where, as we must see twice to see, Malcolm the therapist could not. Before Malcolm intervenes as solicitor of Cole's father transferences he is his own unlaid ghost—a figure of unmourning and doubling who is therefore pulled up by maternal routes. Following the formula Freud proposes in "The Taboo of Virginity," the trouble the wife, Anna, is having with (the loss of) her husband, Malcolm, she is still having, deep down, with (the loss of) her own mother.
Effects of the disturbance in his mother's relations with her dead mother were transferred, like the poltergeist trajectory of the deceased grandmother's bumble-bee pin, into her relations with her son. The prior divorce settlement of absence in the father's place already reflected the pull of problems Cole's mother was still having with her mother. The film puts the haunting splitting images of the missing mother to rest and puts through in her identified (with) place of remaining at rest transparent communications between daughter and grandchild, between mother and child. The anchorperson of this new transparency is the father transference.
When Malcolm reconciles himself to being a goner, and goes away, the widow he leaves behind doubles the single mother with whom Cole continues to be left alone. Anna is free to marry the suitor (who, the first time around, is courting a married woman) now that Malcolm accepts that he is dead and says his goodbyes to her sleeping head. This is the long-distance ring she has been crying to put through: Anna sells antique rings, and for the customers extols the layering of ectoplasmic associations left behind by former owners. She sells dead rings—dead ringers—which double the doubling of her ring with the ring of absence that proves to Malcolm, who quickly glances down at his own ring-less finger, that he's long gone. If there is a happy ending to the film it includes a moment of Oedipal wish fulfillment. But for the most part The Sixth Sense turns happy medium through the prospect of mourning's therapeutic closure.
When we see Malcolm on the monitor at or as the movie's ending we know that in the real time of the plot line we see a dead person. This is only possible, again, because what gets transmitted to us, by letter, e-mail, photo, video or film recording, can always be—at the latest in what we call the meantime —the news from or afterimage of a dead person. But because we can see, by seeing it all again, that we see dead people, we must be the survivors, undead or alive, of this particular meantime. By definition the dead see only what they want to see. That's why they don't know that they are dead. That's why they don't see all the other dead people. But once Malcolm knows that he's a ghost, even though the flashbacks only show how his insertion into scenes works for both his visibility and his invisibility, if Malcolm is the first to see the whole film again, flashing before his eyes in its double setting, then he too must, this time around, see the dead people. He serves thus as our seeing-eye delegate in the film. With Malcolm we discover the second time around that we can see dead people. We learn through the horror film's replaying that we can see even what we don't want to see. If we can see what we precisely did not see before, then that is because we have already identified with dead people (and, at the same time, with the techno media).
What makes The Sixth Sense—like the Scream trilogy (1996, 1997, 2000), for another example—precisely post-Psycho rather than pre-Psycho is the self-conscious therapeutic momentum that builds (on) resolution. This fantasy or entertainment all about resolution need not stay under the skin for long. Just one more time around the blockage and the fantasy's recognition value (calculated according to the therapeutic standard) effects, already and finally, an enduring (because original) displacement.
Bander, Peter. Voices from the Tapes. Recording from the Other World. New York: Drake Publishers, 1973.
Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Motifs of Baudelaire." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 155-200.
_______. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility." Illuminations: 217-251.
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. 24 volumes.
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977 .
Sachs, Hanns. "The Delay of the Machine Age." Trans. Margaret J. Powers. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 11, 3-4 (1933): 404-424.
Sharpe, Ella Freeman. "The Analyst. Essential Qualifications for the Acquisition of Technique." Collected Papers on Psychoanalysis. Ed. Marjorie Brierly. London: The Hogarth Press, 1950 : 9-21.
_______. "Certain Aspects of Sublimation and Delusion." Collected Papers on Psychoanalysis, 1950 : 125-136.
_______. Dream Analysis. A Practical Handbook for Psychoanalysts. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961 .