Monday, March 22, 2004
Punch Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love

Popeye the Novelty Toilet Accessory Man

Share the pain as Adam Sandler—er, Barry Egan—tries to figure out what it is to be a man.



Fascinating take on Punch-Drunk Love and very apt.  Let me add this:

You say “Men and women both continue to be oppressed by patriarchal gender constructions.”  One scene in particular caricatures Barry’s frustration with that very oppression.  In the middle of his First Date Performance with Lena, at the restaurant, Barry gets up, heads to the restroom, and proceeds to brutalize it and himself within it: in short, he “beats up the Men’s Room.”  In symbol, he’s physically confronting the confining box of stereotypes post-patriarchy has placed him in.  The only solution?  Love, and, as you say, cathartic love, especially.  In a later scene, we see a shot of Barry’s knuckles, bloodied from punching the bathroom fixtures; the wounds and blood spell the word “Love.”  Rage is Barry’s single most male characteristic; he packs quite a “Punch.” The expression of his rage manifests a literal “spelling out” of his ultimate salvation: Love.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 29 Mar 04 at 07:10 PM

Terrific piece.

Throughout, I couldn’t help but think that your emphasis on performativity in the construction of masculinity and the importance of masquerade was like a reversed mirror image of Lacanian theories of femininity.

It was this aspect of your article which made me ask the following question: what justification could a Lacanian posit for NOT extending their view of women to post-patriachal men?

Ultimately, my answer to this is that (for Lacanians at least) patriarchy is not just about power - it is integrated within the very structure of our language. As Beauvoir pointed out “man is both the neutral and the positive”. In other words, there are individual men and then there is ‘Man’, whereas although there are individual women, as Lacan says “the Woman does not exist”.

Therefore, I wonder what prospects there are for real, genuine change in patriarchal gender constructions whilst our linguistic system itself remains patriarchal. Like you, I think “Punch-Drunk Love” does address this issue - however its conclusion (that salvation is to be found in the love and honesty between two individual people) risks mistaking a personal truth (ie. love) for a political truth (ie. the need to radically change patriarchal gender constructions).

The suggestion that the personal experience of love might have political consequences is, for me, too close to the idea, in “Fight Club”, that masochism can be turned into a political project, when ultimately what happens is that the project descends into an ineffective orgy of aestheticised violence (see Slavoj Zizek’s book “Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences” for more on this point).

Posted by deathvalley69 on 07 Jul 04 at 08:32 AM

sorry for taking so long to reply.

i had not even noticed the knuckles spelling love.  thanks for pointing that out.

Posted by theos-logos on 12 Sep 04 at 08:29 PM

personally, my hope is that issues of gender can begin to connect in a political level that takes seriously the personal level.  i tried to explicate this connection between personal and political as punch drunk masculinity.  as i have said in this essay, the experience of patriarchy (both politically and personally) does not relate very well to the experience of many women living in dangerous urban centers.  do our politics relate to this very well or are politicians still skating around pc gender free language as if that is the issue that matters to the rape rates, or the dickless barry eagan’s getting screwed by phone sex chatlines or feeling addicted to internet porn?  what would happen if people started to politically debate some of these experiences?  for one thing i think we might stop with the bullshit about pc language or the evils of a bygone patriarchy and get back to how to get both men and women to practice respect, honesty and love amidst increasing exploitation and alienation.

Posted by theos-logos on 12 Sep 04 at 08:38 PM

sorry for the late replies

as for the relationship of post-patriarchal men to lacan i think you are right that lacan has no space for women in his patriarchal semiotics.  as to whether lacan is “right” or not, i guess i tend to think that any philosophy or psychology that alienates half of the human race (women) is probably wrong.  it seems to me that irigaray is taking up the challenge of making sense of if not correcting lacan in this regard.  i know zizek is so clever, but his use of lacan as the new metanarrative by which to interpret everything is a bit overblown at times.

i would not agree that personal truth and political truth need to be separated just to ward off the potentialities of sado-masochism.  i would also disagree that fight club exhausts the political possibilities for masculine expressions of violence and suffering. 

certainly we need to beware of conflating public and private spaces ala habermas’s call for a political space of communicative action and argumentation, but I tend to go back to aristotle a bit here and argue that people are inherently political animals.  i tend to think that the reason people are dissolusioned with politics these days is in part because it has become a mediatized abstraction that doesn’t relate to people’s personal lives with much affect.  i think the call for politicians is to sync up their debates and policies with the personal issues of everyday life.  having said this, politicians need to also beware of drumming up scare tactics that make their policies appear to relate to everyday life - e.g. making terrorism the number one priority when more people will die of cancer or heart disease. 

Posted by theos-logos on 12 Sep 04 at 08:38 PM

Now I’m not sure, but to me this makes sense of it a bit.  The wreck is Barry in chaotic post-patriarchal politics.  The wreck is both what Barry does, how Barry feels, and to a certain extent the chaos that surrounds Barry which he has been internalizing and repressing.  That, to me, is why I think it is so important that Barry confesses to Lena.  That is why the harmonium is so important. These are the chances Barry has to work through the chaos around and within him - to work through all the gender simulacra and the plurality of patriarchal roles, etc.  This cathartic relationship with Lena is roughly analogous to Barry learning to play the harmonium.  It is through this cathartic love that Barry will hopefully find healthy ways of expressing his masculinity in relation to Lena.

So that is my best guess at making sense of it, but there may be other ways of seeing it as well.

Posted by theos-logos on 12 Sep 04 at 08:41 PM

someone emailed me asking about the harmonium and car wreck at the beginning.  here’s my response:

It seems to me though that the car wreck and the harmonium are metaphors of Barry.  Barry’s chaotic outbursts are represented by the wreck, and his journey punch-drunk masculine journey with Lena is the harmonium. The harmonium in this sense is what Barry must choose to internalize if he is going to be able to overcome the chaos. 

What we see at the opening is a man in his sanctuary, in his private secure psyche, if you will, talking on the phone.  He walks out into the public world, out into a performance on the stage of his life, and what happens is a car wreck.  It is far off cinematically to represent how it is far off psychologically for Barry.  Barry doesn’t understand it, nor does he do anything about it.  It seems to me that the car wreck is analogous to Barry’s frequent bursts of uncontrollable, chaotic rage. The quiet man gawks at the wreck in horror and fear.  He doesn’t go out to help, he just stands there petrified.  Similarly this is what happens when he kicks in the windows in the film, as well as when he destroys the bathroom.  Its as if Barry is unaware of his actions.  He goes into some sort of zone.

The harmonium on the other hand, represents the best Barry can be.  Somehow, in the midst of the chaotic post-patriarchal politics, amidst the car wreck of his life, Barry is given a harmonium which he chooses to internalize and hold onto.  He brings it into his sanctuary and begins to play.  The harmonium does seem to enter the film transcendently, almost clairvoyantly.  Its as if someone knows this is what Barry needs to work out who he really is.  The harmonium is the peace that overpowers the chaos in the film.  Barry is attracted to it, as he is to Lena who enters the film at the same time.  As he learns to play the harmonium, he is also learning how to relate to Lena - he is learning how to be a man beyond the post-patriarchal politics.  So the harmonium works as a metaphor for what Barry will become.  It is his telos, his potential, his journey, his gift.

Posted by theos-logos on 12 Sep 04 at 08:41 PM

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