The Psychopathology of the Dark Side


One of the reasons I started Rabbit Hole was to rehabilitate me back into doing my PhD. I think it's time I told you why I stopped. It has to do with breasts and the dark side.

I'm standing in front of a large auditorium full of people, and for some reason that escapes me at this moment, I'm talking about breasts.

Over the past few days, I've practiced my talk so many times I can speak and concentrate on the running commentary going on in my head. Right at this moment, it's saying:

Dude! What?! Why. The f*ck. Did I. Agree to do this?!!

I look down to make sure. Phew! Thank god. I have pants on. I look out at the audience. Dammit! They have clothes on too, which means I'm not dreaming.

I get to the end of my short talk—about breasts and cinema, but more about the breasts than cinema—and I'm pointing at the screen behind me to a large picture of the Death Star and a baby wearing 3D glasses, and I'm thinking, "F*ck it. I did it. I don't care."

"Now it's time to go away and do something else while I figure out what I'm doing with my life."

That's no moon. That's a giant breast floating in space.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was doing my PhD. My thesis was about psychoanalytic theories of childhood development and how they can be applied to film criticism. The presentation I gave was for this competition I got talked in to where you had to explain your research in three minutes—the aptly named 3 Minute Thesis Competition.

The basic idea of my PhD is that children, particularly infants, understand the world differently. They have different preoccupations and ways of seeing things, and you can find traces of it in our adult lives and consequently in oodles and oodles of films. My thesis didn't have to be about film specifically. I could have have used poetry, or novels, or TV, or Australian conservative politics to illustrate the same thing—the main point being that,

The line between childhood and adulthood is in some respects arbitrary.

There is no line really. It's more fluid than that. A lot of what we think belongs to 'childhood' and what belongs to 'adulthood' is socially, culturally and historically determined, especially when it comes to anything that is connected to our emotional lives (which in reality pretty much means everything).

Quick example off the top of my head. I twirl my hair when I'm anxious, and there are a lot of people out there who suck their thumb well beyond the point they're expected to stop. The two things are related. It's a form of self-soothing—the same young children do around the time when they're being weaned, if not before.

But infants don't come into this world knowing that sticking your thumb in your mouth is a good thing to do. They have to learn it. In fact, they come into the world knowing very little.

A small portion of what infants do is instinctual; the rest is learnt. And what they learn is built upon and transformed into what is considered more grown-up, but still has tendrils that reach back to infantile beginnings.

At some point, an infant learns that sticking its thumb in its mouth is a good 'stop-gap' when they're hungry or feeling anxious, giving their parents a little respite. In time, many of us will grow out of doing this altogether and learn to tolerate anxiety and frustration, which is why we as grown-ups don't scream and cry in the line at our morning coffee place, or fall on the ground arms flaying when our order doesn't come quick enough.

For the most part.

It doesn't mean that we don't have these little kid moments—flashes of hurt and anger and feelings of persecution when they get our coffee order wrong, or someone pushes in the line in front of us. Like the American author Maya Angelou said,

“Most people don't grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.”

And it's not a cliché. Remnants of our infantile life stay with us no matter how much we drape it in adult maturity. It lingers behind our big people's personas, jumping out to surprise us when we least expect it. As Virginia Woolf said:

“Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.”

At least, that was the premise of my research: there are parts of us that never grow up, and there are many vivid examples of this in narrative cinema.

So what's the problem? What happened?

No problem, really. It's just that that idea will take you to funny places if you follow it—places where you find yourself babbling like an idiot, pointing at a screen, saying, "That's no moon. That's a giant 'bad' breast floating in space".

The infantile origins of the Force and the dark side

Okay. Here's what I basically said during my short talk...

When we’re born, we have no concept of ourselves as individuals. Infants can’t distinguish between themselves and everything else in the world. They can't understand the concept of 'you' or 'me'; what belongs to them and what doesn't; even what's inside and what's outside their own bodies.

So imagine for a second the experience of hunger if you didn't know what hunger was.

You and I know what it is, but we had to learn it. Hunger comes when you don't eat. But what if you don't know what 'eat' means or even where food comes from.

Oh, and you can't move either so you don't really have control over anything. You're totally helpless. You can't seek out food, nor run away from danger; you simply have to lie there and endure what happens and try to understand why it's happening.

So, you're sick with hunger—which you can't understand because you don't know yet that your stomach is a part of your own body and that it's like a petrol tank that needs filling every two or three hours—so you feel like you're under attack from some unseen force because you have absolutely no cognitive, intellectual or emotional framework to understand or deal with what's going on.

You don't know why it's happening. You don't know when it'll stop. And you can't do much about it anyway since you can't move very much, nor speak the language of the morons who are standing over you trying to figure out what's wrong. (Plus you have no concept that those morons are your loving parents—that they're separate from you and individuals in their own right. 'And what's language anyway? Using vocal sounds to communicate? What do you think I've been doing at the top of my lungs for the past half hour?!')

Waking up not knowing where you are and what's happening to you sounds like the premise for a psychological sci-fi horror thriller, right?

So there's there's this branch of psychoanalysis called ‘object relations theory’ that tries to account for how we deal with these early developmental dramas and how we develop a sense of 'self' and 'other.' For those in or associated with the 'object relations' camp, the early ideas and relationships the child forms when breastfeeding are key.

The bare bones of the theory goes like this.

Every newborn comes into the world pre-programmed with the idea that something ‘like a breast’ exists. The infant doesn't really know what one is, but as a survival mechanism, it knows to seek one out. When this internal preconception of a breast meets an external real breast, something magical happens—the child gets the impression, ‘Ah ha! I can make a breast appear just by thinking about it.’

This is the basis the infant's early narcissism ('I am the center of the universe!'), and its aggression ('Kneel before Zod!').

However, after this initial success—as I can imagine most parents are painfully aware at four in the morning—babies get really upset when food and comfort doesn’t appear on command. According to object relations theorists, it's from this moment on that that infants develop the sense of there being, not one, but two breasts—one ‘good’, the other ‘bad.’

It might sound a little far fetched, but what object relations theory is trying to do is trace the very origins of our primitive and absolute sense of right and wrong, good and bad.

The ‘good’ breast is everything we felt in that connected, symbiotic self-less state prior to birth, and during that initial postnatal period when we developed the idea that breasts magically appear on demand. The 'bad' breast is, in part, the infant's instinctual fantasy about a mean and potentially destructive object that is keeping all the good things for itself, which is (1) a threat to the infant's very survival, and (2) deserving of the infant's aggression.

You can probably guess that it's about here that I used a film to illustrate this idea.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, there’s ‘The Force’ and ‘the dark side.’

The Force is that lovely feeling of connection to all things. Using the Force, people can summon objects just by thinking about them.

Right now, I'm thinking about Luke in The Empire Strikes Back hanging upside down immobilised in ice like a baby on a change table. He struggles a little until he remembers that he can use his mind to summon his lightsaber, and then he kills the yeti-thing that wants to eat him. (Oh, and in baby-logic, 'I want to eat it' often translates into, 'It must also want to eat me.' Makes sense.)

In contrast, the dark side is that thing—that feeling, that agency—that represents the possibility of a terrifying disconnection from all things. The dark side wants everything selfishly for itself. It, like Darth Vader, will literally choke the life out of anything and anyone that gets in its way.

Narrative-wise in the Star Wars series, the ultimate expression of the dark side is the Death Star. It's the principle object in the film that everyone's concerned about—building it, protecting it, blowing it up (twice).

And through the lens of the infant's early preoccupations, the Death Star is analogous to the infant's doomsday intuition about a giant disembodied 'bad' breast, floating in space, terrorising the galaxy.

As an expression of that agency that threatens to disconnect and destroy, the Death Star is at odds with the Force—that 'energy field created by all living things that surrounds us, binding the galaxy together,' as Obi-Wan says.

In this sense, the Death Star is no moon, but a gigantic (in proportion to the infant's perspective) dark-grey metallic monstrosity that floats around disintegrating other people's peaceful 'good' breast home-worlds with laser-streams of hot death-milk from its inverted techno-nipple.

I have a bad feeling about this (but working on it)

Okay, I admit it sounds a little ridiculous. I guess that's why I was so embarrassed standing in front of a large group of people talking about it.

But a lot of our unconscious fantasies are ridiculous—that's why they're unconscious. That's why they get re-figured as fantastic magical powers or crazy objects out to get us.

The seriousness of adulthood is laid upon the ruins of the phantasmic logic of childhood. But they're not ruins really. We may learn as adults that we're not the center of the universe, but in cinema for an hour or two we get to fantasise, pretend and play with the possibility that we are.

Which is why, come to think of it, a film about spaceship battles in the future is also paradoxically set 'a long time ago' in the past.