Poseidon Adventure | Video Installation | 2013


Part Four: On the couch: Disaster and Desire

“You resist temptation admirably,” Dr. Louis Judd tells his recalcitrant patient Irena in the 1942 horror classic, Cat People (Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton). Irena had just returned a set of forgotten panther-cage keys to the film’s apocalyptic zookeeper, and Judd, who had followed her there, had observed this simple safety precaution with interest. He has reason to believe that she really would like to unlock the cage and free the magnificent cat, so he sincerely admires her restraint. And he explains his admiration in somewhat reductive Freudian terms. “There is, in some cases, a psychic need to loose evil upon the world,” he tells her. “And we all of us carry within us the desire for death.”

In many ways, this is the film’s pivotal scene. The “everyman” zoo-keeper speaks for common sense, and pathologizes the “psychic need to loose evil upon the world,”as he receives the keys with a shrug. “I’m always doing that,” he tells her. “Ain’t no harm in it. No one would want to steal one of these critters.” Judd, on the other hand, speaks for psychoanalysis, as he normatizes the death drive, and links desire to violence. From his standpoint, we all would like to free the panther. Irena the symptomatic woman stands between them, the object-victim it would seem of competing masculinist psycho-social narratives.

I write at some length about this older film because it neatly references the relationship between disaster and desire. And it points to the position (Irena’s) that the 1970s disaster film cycle should occupy, a station between the competing discourses of historically-specific ideological critique, on the one hand, and transhistoric psychoanalysis, on the other. But while there has been ideological, social and formal analysis of the disaster films, very little psychoanalytic commentary has been published. This is in shar p contrast to the other two major trauma-cycles of the 70s—slasher films and vigilante films—both of which have inspired interesting bodies of psychoanalytic critique. In the disaster realm, however, other than Claire Sisco King’s excellent discussion of Poseidon Adventure, very little psychoanalytic work has been done.22

On the thematic level alone, this is surprising, since these films trade in the kind of trope-imagery that psychoanalysis cut its teeth on. Water and fire, birth and rebirth imagery, phallic structures of all kinds, the social construction of the couple and the family, the instanciation of “civilization” via the law of the Father, Oedipal struggles for power, trauma, and ritual sacrificial death provide the recurring motifs and imagery for all four movies. Add to that our pleasure in seeing the amount of gore and mayhem that disaster movies enact – during the first disaster sequence in Poseidon Adventure, for example, we get three full minutes of onscreen carnage—and the stage would seem to be set for a Freudian reading.

To some extent New World Disaster calls attention to this critical lacuna, this lack. The subtitle, “disaster and desire” rewrites a kind of libidinal economy back into our wish both for real disaster (as a kind of purge) and for disaster films (what Lowther calls a “perverse pleasure”). In addition, the way the installation is structured emblematizes certain problematics of Freudian theory. The monitors do not present actual re-enactments from the films, but rather re-creations based on Lowther’s memory. In that sense, they literally embody “screen memories,” those memories which, Victor Burgin writes, come to mind “in the place of, and in order to conceal, an associated but repressed memory.” And Lowther’s installation neatly illustrates Burgin’s argument that “we probably all have early memories of images from films that are invested with personal significance, but often a significance that remains opaque to us.” 23 Furthermore, in Lowther’s installation, re-creations from specific films unfold against a free-associative mix of other disaster footage, footage edited in a highly personal way.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a psychoanalytic read of either the films or of the installation. But it is part of the power of New World Order, I think, that it invites us to read intimate personal memories alongside what Brian Massumi might call “social histories” of fear and catastrophe. Alongside, or perhaps “speaking nearby,” Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory. And in that sense it invites us to imagine what a more personal and more psychoanalytically-inflected analysis of these films might yield. 24

I began this essay with the observation that the 1970s occupy a liminal space in the cultural imaginary. Liminal comes from the Latin word for “threshold,” and refers to the state of being caught between two different existential planes. The term was coined by anthropologist Arthur van Gennup in The Rites of Passage to identify “the space between transitions, say from an unmarried state to marriage.” As cultural critic Laurie Stone writes,van Gennup “said people need a zone that is neither one thing, nor the other.” 25 In its original articulation, liminality was rather a benign concept, but it was later taken up (by Victor Turner among others) to describe in-between situations that are “characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.”26 Certainly this was the mark of the 1970s, which in historical terms stands on the threshold between a 1960s call torevolutionary action on the one hand and a 1980s return to traditional values, on the other. As Mary Daly reminds us, “danger lies in transitional states.” 27 And for Lowther, as for many artists coming up during this liminal period, that danger was marked by desirable images of apocalyptic disaster.


Special thanks to Nathan Carroll, Christopher Dumas, Ulysse Dutoit, Bob Ellis, Steve Elworth, Skip Hawkins, Jim Kendrick and Christopher Lowther.

1. Trinh T. Minh- ha, “Reassemblage” in Framer Framed (New York: Routledge, 1992) 95-105; and Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Language of Nativism: Anthropology as a Scientific Conversation of Man with Man,” in Woman, Native, Other : Writing, Postcoloniality, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989) 47-76.

2. Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body :Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 9-10

3. Georges Bataille believed that social systems produced more energy than they could productively use. Whatever excess did not “burn off” in ritual, Bataille said, would necessarily be unleashed in war, in civic violence. Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols 1 -3. Trans Robert Hurley. (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

4. And that was just the U.S. Throughout the 1970s, the headlines screamed violence—The Baader Meinhof Group in Germany, The Red Brigades in Italy, the Provisonal IRA’s “Long War,” the Tupamaros, the toppling of Salvador Allende’s Government, the emergence of the Weather Underground in the U.S. along with escalating police and government responses, and more. The point here is that the international revolutionary rhetoric of the 1960s turned to violent action in the 1970s.

5. Avital Ronell, Interview with Andrea Juno, Angry Women, edited by Andrea Juno and V.Vale (San Francisco: RE/Search, 1991) 134

6. These movements lay somewhat outside the scope of this installation, but they were a major Counter-Culture force throughout the 1975-1985 period.

7. Werner Erhard established the Erhard Seminars Training program, offering a 2 weekend seminar that, he said, would transform your life. The purpose of est, was to take the energy boomers had expended on trying to change the world and turn it inward, to transform one’s relationship to life situations. The training sessions were noted for their bootcamp style rigor and were popular from 1971-1984. See Mark Brewerk. “We’re Gonna Tear You Down and Put You Back Together”, Psychology Today, August 1975.

8. Steven Keane, Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, Second edition. Short Cuts Series. (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2001/2006) 16.

9. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed and trans Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 39-40, 445, 52-53, 73, 141, 169-73.

10. Maria del Mar Azcona, The Multi-Protagonist Film (UK ; Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) 1

11. Ibid. 15

12. See Alex McNeil, Total Television Fourth edition (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1996) 492, 493

13. His TV credits include Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968, ABC), Lost in Space, (1965-1968, CBS), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967, ABC), Land of the Giants (1968-1970, ABC)

14. J. Hoberman, “Apocalypse Then and Now,” in The Magic Hour: Film at the Fin de Siècle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003) 169-170. Subsequent citations will be given in the body of the text.

15. Taken from the title of Susan Willis, Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post-9/11 America (London and New York: Verso, 2005)

16. Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs. Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 8. (Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS 2011) 122.

17. Keane, Disaster Movies, 1

18. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) 1

19. Richard Dyer, “American Cinema in the 70s: The Towering Inferno,” Movie 21 (1975; 30-33) 31

20. See for example The Cinematic, ed David Company. Documents of Contemporary Art Series (London: Whitechapel, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007)

21. Jean-Paul Sartre, In Search of a Method. Trans Hazel E. Barnes. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) 64

22. Claire Sisco King, Washed in Blood: Male Sacrifice, Trauma and the Cinema (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2012) 65-78

23. Victor Burgin, “Possessive, Pensive, and Possessed,” in The Cinematic, ed David Company. Documents of Contemporary Art Series (London:Whitechapel, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007) 201.

24. Brian Massumi, “Introduction,” The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)

25. Laurie Stone, My Life as an Animal, unpublished ms. 2011, 11-12

26. Bjørn Thomassen, The Uses and Meanings of Liminality (International Political Anthropology 2009) 51

27. Mary Daly, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984) 96.