Review: Lilian Munk Rösing, Pixar with Lacan: The Hysteric's Guide to Animation (2016)
The title of Lilian Munk Rösing’s recent publication Pixar with Lacan: The Hysteric’s Guide to Animation (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016) contains many of my favourite words. With. The. Hysteric. But seriously, the blending of Jacques Lacan’s structuralist re-visioning of psychoanalytic theory with the stable of Pixar animation is both a provocative and insightful one. Lacanian theory – known by many as either as source of theoretical intrigue or frustration – offers a dense, abstract, often impenetrable but always insightful and innovative way of making sense of the world or, rather, a way of envisioning how we as subjects make sense of the world. It is therefore not necessarily a subject matter that lends itself to the kinds of big-screen fun associated with Pixar's animated features. Yet, for us Lacanians (of which I count myself as a church-member, albeit one that might fail to attend as many Sunday morning sermons as I should) it is precisely the fun in in comprehending his writings and applying them to examples that propels a lifetime of fascination in Lacanian psychoanalysis. I get the sense reading Rösing that we are dealing with just such a Lacanian, and thus the author is welcome to sit next to me at the next annual Lacanian bbq event.
Pixar with Lacan offers a number of interesting insights for those interested in the world of talking rats, walking toys, and mirror stages. Proposing a methodology that is steeped in the contemporary neo-Lacanian discourse developed by theorists such as Todd McGowan and Ben Tyrer (whose chapter on television series Game of Thrones appears in our own book, Rösing offers not a ‘top down’ theorising of Pixar in which the films are made meaningful because they happen to offer themselves available to Lacanian readings, but a process of dialogue in which Lacan can teach us something about Pixar and, vice versa, what Pixar movies can teach us about Lacan (2016: 2). This methodology leads to an exciting partnership of theory and interpretation, as lesser known Lacanian concepts are explored in relation to moments within Pixar movies many of will remember fondly. Personally, the greatest example of this blending came in a chapter on Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001), a Pixar movie that does not actually rank highly within my personal list of favourites. Nevertheless, Rösing manages to illuminate a particular moment from that film in which Sulley is made self-consciously aware for the first time of the effect his scaring has on children by seeing Boo’s frightened face (Fig. 1). This moment had emotionally impact for me when watching the film, and Rösing’s reading allows the psychic undercurrents of such an experience to be articulated through a lucid engagement with Lacan’s concept of the other’s gaze. I learnt something about Lacan, and something about Sulley too.
From start to finish, the book is composed of similarly enlightening readings of important Pixar moments, from an exploration of Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) in relation to Lacan’s concept of the ‘name of the father’ (her re-reading of Freud’s more famous Oedipus complex) to an analysis of puns as exponents of the mechanics of the signifier in A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter, 1998). Having read the book, I am left in a slightly contemplative mood as to where this blending of popular culture and Lacanian psychoanalysis practiced by scholars such as Rösing might take us as a scholarly community. After all, if one truly finds insight in Lacanian psychoanalysis, then that insight applies to all things. That is part of the nature of the theoretical discipline of psychoanalysis, offering an ambitious and dense theory of how the human subject is constructed, and thus how all walks of life with meaning are influenced by that process of construction. So, the pertinent question surely is not if Pixar can be read through Lacanian theory. As stated, almost anything comprehensible can be illuminated through such a process. Rather, the question becomes why should we apply Lacan to Pixar? What do we learn about Lacan and/or Pixar through the process of application? Providing creative readings of how Pixar’s narrative and visuals speak to Lacanian concerns is a partial answer to that question, but does run the constant risk of falling into a mere pedagogical process in which Lacanian theory is taught through accessible examples. Future scholarship, however, might consider instead the ways in which Lacanian theory intersects with the specificity of animated storytelling and the worlds it conjures, thinking through the ways in which the spheres of the imaginary hold sway over their fictional realms, and the role of phantasy in processing and rendering animation as a meaningful media form.
 In addition to offering a less authoritative means of performing Lacanian theory, this shift in neo-Lacanian psychoanalysis seeks to move away from seeing the cinema as the sight of the mastering of the gaze but as a place where the gaze itself is encountered. See Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (New York: SUNY, 2007) and Ben Tyrer, Out of the Past: Lacan and Film Noir (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).