“He was the phenomenon of twenties. When you think that, he was as well-known as Lindbergh. It’s really quite astonishing.” Susan Sontag
This paper is interested to find traces of brilliant theorists, who contributed to cultural theory in twentieth century, in a Woody Allen film Zelig. Among these theorists there are Mikhail Bakhtin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek and Giorgio Agamben. With the Zelig fictional documentary, Woody Allen rewrites the pre-WW2 period of United States with Zelig whose mysterious existence exposes issues like societal conditions of pre-war American society, construction of the other, triangular relation between psychotic – neurotic individual, society and psychoanalysis, national discourses in contemporary political environment of U.S during pre-WW2 period, establishment of popular culture together with media worlds through devices like radio and cinema in 20’s and 30’s American society. This paper will analyze metamorphosis of a psychotic, Leonard Zelig, and finally draw its relation to societal psychosis.
Who is Zelig? Why does someone bother to know?
“Though the shows and parties keep Zelig’s sister and her lover rich and amused, Zelig’s own existence is a nonexistence. Devoid of personality, his human qualities long since lost in the shuffle of life. He sits alone, quietly staring into space: A cipher, a nonperson, a performing freak.”
As Susan Sontag states in the beginning of documentary, Zelig was the phenomenon of 20’s. Irving Howe, American literary and social critic, claims that Zelig’s story is reflecting the nature of civilization and the character of those times. According to well-known American writer Saul Bellow, “he was very amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they would prefer not to be touched.” In this documentary, these three critics are certainly making a common point which is the crucial relation, roughly between Zelig and civilization.
The narrator states that it was 1928 when a party was held in Long Island Estate where socialites, patrons of arts, cream of high society, politicians and poets among which Scott Fitzgerald, whose works were associated with Jazz Age in 20’s and who was considered to be one of the leading members of Lost Generation, were present. According to his notes, in the party there was a man named Leon Selwyn, with Boston accent, probably an aristocrat and an impassioned Republican. An hour later, Fitzgerald notes that, he was stunned to see the same person speaking with the kitchen help, and now claiming to be a Democrat, with a coarse accent. One year later, this person is spotted among players in New York Yankees training ground. That same year in Chicago, a waiter, Calvin Turner, says that he noticed this stranger, sitting among the guests in a private party. The stranger suddenly disappears, and a few seconds later, Turner realizes that this person has turned into a black musician in the orchestra.
Several months later, New York Police investigates a missing clerk named Leonard Zelig, who was later found in Chinatown while displaying “oriental” features; and was immediately taken to Manhattan Hospital. On the way to hospital, he turns from Chinese to Caucasian. There Dr. Fletcher, a female psychiatrist, begins to examine the mystery of this person. This time, Zelig turns into a psychiatrist, a profound one, claiming that he had written a few psychoanalytical papers while he worked with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, where the two broke over the concept of “penis envy”, that Zelig was suggesting that it should not be limited to women. While he was under examination time to time, Zelig wanders around the country; speaking French alongside Frenchmen, and Chinese either, just before Dr. Alan Sindell suggests him to be “scientific phenomenon of the age and possibly of all times.” Thus the medical experiments on Zelig increases by the time which Dr. Fletcher describes the case as not a physiological disorder but a psychological one.
While skeptical doctors turn their backs on this innovative thought, Zelig has already been popular among society. Advertisements, commercials, newsreels, papers are all mentioning Zelig as the “Human Chameleon”. Formerly editors of New York Daily Mirror, Mike Geibell and Ted Bierbauer imply that on those days, they would do anything to sell papers; exaggerating stories and such. However, in the case of Zelig, it was different. It was natural, pure truth, which attracted people, and make them buy papers. Later Zelig is taken out of hospital for home care by his step-sister, whose husband would arrange exhibition tours for Zelig all around U.S and Europe. After death of his step-sister and her husband in Spain, Zelig goes missing. Sometime later he is found, and Dr. Fletcher begins “White Room Sessions” in which she performs psychotherapy on Zelig.
Meanwhile, psychotherapy sessions reveal that constant metamorphosis of Zelig is emanated from his childhood complex which he experienced. While under hypnosis Zelig narrates a story: One day at school, a friend of him asks whether he read Moby Dick or not; and just because everyone in class have already read it, Zelig preferred to say that he also read it although he didn’t. Dr. Fletcher adjudicates that Zelig’s tendency to adjust to environment happens psychologically, because he doesn’t want to be “alienated” from his surroundings. Moreover, under hypnosis, Zelig said that by transforming himself this kind, he only desires to be safe. In this way, an alienatedZelig is very much a Kafkaesquecharacter, as Woody Allen puts it. Woody Allen, who has been under psychoanalytical therapy for thirty years of his life, knows very much of Sigmund Freud; and throughout his film career, he continuously makes references to Franz Kafka as well.
As a matter of fact, Gregor Samsa may really have been transformed into an insect; however Kafka also provided the possibility that it may be Samsa’s own delusion that he has been transformed into an insect. The blurriness between the lines of insect hood and human hood on which Kafka constructs his character in Metamorphosis, resembles Allen’s Zelig, whose position may be interpreted as if he is between reptile hood (as the press puts it) and human hood. On the other hand, the case of Zelig is different than Samsa, despite the similarity. Zelig, as an individual who becomes a social phenomenon, requires recognition, meaning and a certain kind of knowibility. In this respect, description of Zelig’s existence is ambivalent; a notion that is very important in Bakhtin’s interpretation of “grotesque”. According to Bakhtin, grotesque image is something, which represents an unfinished metamorphosis of death and birth, of growth and becoming. It is frightening and humorous at the same time. It is between the real and the imaginary. In this regard, Zelig represents a grotesque imagery, whose traces of existence cannot be found in the reality of everyday life. In addition to intense sense of ambivalence which grotesque elicits, it also includes tracks of “unfinished metamorphosis”; which may simply be suggested as the main disparity between Gregor Samsa and Leonard Zelig. Samsa’s metamorphosis may be interpreted within the limits of literary text in two ways; as a psychotic human being or as a former human being: An insect. On the other hand, Zelig is human, whose unfinished transformation is debated among both society and medical experts. Moreover, constant need to define this grotesque phenomenon of 20’s, is a procedure of enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer introduces it.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, written by Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, was first published in 1944; sixteen years after Leonard Zelig emerged as social phenomenon. It would probably be possible for Adorno and Horkheimer to examine Zelig case for their insights on attributes of enlightenment, but unfortunately Zelig didn’t exist in reality. Though, we may consider that their work was partially dedicated to Zelig; as if Zelig was a case study for the purpose of bringing forth the character of enlightenment as demythologizing and disenchanting. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, all knowledges present themselves as liberation from mythology and blind belief; they tend to disenchant magical representations of the world. It is a form of deep suspicion against transcendentmeaning or truth and increasing skepticism of any claims of access reach of transcendent. Besides, Adorno and Horkheimer underline the notion of transcendent content which means what’s beyond immediately thinkable. It is kind of meaning lying outside truth itself. This form of knowledge is rejection of what it cannot specify. At this point, you can see thought as context of pure immanence. The term immanentmeans being within limits of possible experience, knowledge. Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that enlightenment aims at containing everything. In this sense, anything transcendent is impossible and the ones that fall outside the limits is its mythology. Therefore, enlightenment is constantly demythologizing, while it attacks every claim of different forms of knowledge. It includes methods of not only positivism but also empiricism; kind of exclusive focus only what can be directly sensed, quantifiable, systematized in math; just as several psychiatrists attempt in the case of Zelig.
Due to his unidentifiable, unknown, non-recognizable, and simply “mythical” or “magical” existence, Zelig is the center of attraction of positivist and empiricist intentions. His metamorphosis is a case study for scientists whose sole purpose is to convert all magical and mythical elements of his existence into a particular “Saussurean sign”. In dialectic of enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer also refer to Saussurean concept of signalthough they were not structuralist. They underline that when humans produce images, they are repeating nature as they perceive them. Representation begins in repetition which evolves into sign. It is not connected to world by any relation of resemblance. It assigns a function; takes a sound and makes is the representation of certain object. At this point, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that sign is like money, numbers; a system ofequivalences. It establishes an equation whose equivalence is not related with properties of the object; like the value of money has nothing to do with its paper or metal. In this sense, while image is operative representation of magic and myth, sign is a component of rationality. Image is like being like and part of nature while sign is simply to know the nature. Either you give up being part of nature (image-magic) and become scientific or you don’t become scientific and enlightened, which means you give up the possibility of knowing nature. Here is the dialectic they try to point at. Theodor Adorno particularly associates this understanding of image as art and sign as science in modern bourgeoisie society. In modern society, art is useless; it is enclosed within the aesthetic sphere, separated from both technology and reality. Science is knowledge, domination of nature at cost of alienation from nature. Therefore, Zelig is deciphered by enlightenment not only for sake of demythologizing and disenchanting, but also for the purpose of being able to dominate nature with enlightenment which Adorno and Horkheimer claims to have reverted into myth itself.
Zelig: One of us? How come?!
“Kids, you got to be yourself. Do not act like anybody else because you think they have all the answers. Be your own man, speak up and say what’s on your mind. Maybe they can’t do that in foreign countries but that’s the American way. I used to be a member of the reptile family but I’m not anymore.” Leonard Zelig.
“Chameleon cured by woman doctor!” wrote the papers right before Zelig was gifted with the symbolic keys of New York City. During psychotherapy, Dr. Fletcher had acted like Leonard Zelig himself, and consequently, Zelig had to face and transform his identity into himself and thus have fallen into an emptiness of character. Later on, through psychoanalytical transference, Zelig develops his own opinions on life; first thing he states is that he wants to have sex with Dr. Fletcher. As time goes on, in spite of his “normalization”, Zelig didn’t lose any of his popularity. He sold his life story to Hollywood where he hangs out with celebrities such as William Hearst, Marie Dressler, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Walker, Adolphe Menjeu, Claire Winsdor, Dolores del Rio, James Cagney, Carole Lombard and Bobby Jones. Meanwhile, Zelig’s advice to youth regarding self respect is meaningful, says Prof. John Blum. According to him, for American people, Zelig was a symbol of self-improvement in Great Depression, to which Susan Sontag agrees. Controversial events take place right before Zelig and Dr. Fletcher arrange their marriage. Several women from all over U.S announce that they have children whose missing father is Zelig and who left right after they have affairs. Later Zelig becomes, not a prototype of ideal citizen but a criminal; who gets charged for every unsolved crimes happened all over the country, including bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, performing unnecessary dental extractions. Afterwards, Zelig is reported to have transformed into Greek while dining in a Greek restaurant. Subsequently he gets missing, and some months later, he is spotted as a deputy among Adolf Hitler’s leading officers. At this point in documentary, Saul Bellow states that fascism offered Zelig a kind of opportunity which would enable him to make something anonymous to himself by belonging to this vast movement.
This part of the documentary displays two different acts of transformation of Zelig’s personality. First one is that he has been cured by Dr. Fletcher, and the second one is that he has transformed back through the end of the documentary while he was with Nazi officials. Until his convalescence, Zelig used to stand in the line between notions such as being a societal subject, a useful normal citizen and a mythical, mysterious, magical, unknown, unidentifiable individual who possesses some humanly characteristics and not either. The process at the end of which Zelig was identified consists of two modes of conduct: Scientific research and forms of speech which was particularly practiced among mass society. To begin with, scientific research, as Adorno and Horkheimer puts it, aims at enlarging and embracing Zelig, so as to dissolve this individual into existing empiricist and positivist modes of understanding, which is basically enlightenment. Secondly, songs, movies, toys, games, adds, chats among people and words in press on Zelig’s authentication, endlessly continues to exist out of limits of scientific knowledge while they all together point at the theoretical understanding of mimetic conception of language, which is simply “discourse as utterance”. Utterance is not only ideological, but it is a use of language not as instrument of communication but of particular acts of using language. It is a language used by specific subject or object and received by specific subjects. For Foucault, it has to do with placing acts of language in history, in entire historical use of its usages. Also Bakhtin is also interested in concept of dialogue and polyphony, that in every word in utterance, there is a whole history of other usages. However, Foucauldian understanding of discourse emphasizes a kind of language which is organized, regulated, regulating and constituting. It regulates who the individual is, and how the individual perceives him/herself.
Zelig, as a human being who is under constant transformation, was long before emptied from his own perceptions and personality. Or, we may say that his personality was adherent to the utterances of individuals around him. That is to say, Zelig was mimicking, repeating the acts of language he perceived such like he was talking with Boston accent, or a coarse one, due to change of social environment. Seen from this aspect, Foucauldian understanding of discourse suggests that language was regulating, constituting and organizing Zelig continuously. Hence, not only Zelig the human chameleon becomes a symbolic exemplification of ultimate function of discourse prevailed, but also, after his “normalization”, he transforms from “a non-existing performing freak” into “an existing performing freak”, which either builds up his own personality on prior utterances or demolishes it:
“I used to be a member of reptile family, but I’m not anymore.”
In an interview with Altyazı magazine in December 2007, Slavoj Zizek, “the Elvis of cultural studies”, who was present in Turkey on those days in Bilgi University for series seminars, claimed that he had not seen Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but he saw Zelig, although he couldn’t clearly make up his mind about Woody Allen about whom he said to be resembling himself in terms of thinking so much but not being able to write or depict it that better. It is also surprisingly modest of a man, who claims to know everything, saying he doesn’t have time to see too many movies, as otherwise he wouldn’t write about cinema. Nonetheless, Zizek would probably suggest that Zelig was symbolizing “the Lacanian Real”, and all attempts to know and identify him occur because the aim is to reintroduce Zelig to “Symbolic Order”. Before talking more on Zizek, especially his idea of “revolution”, there are some debates which make me curious as a pupil of Advanced Cultural Theory course of Fall 2008/2009 semester: 1) If Judith Butler would have analyzed it; would she claim that Zelig is a “materialized” body? Is he a “constitutive outside” or an “abject” body? 2) May he be considered as a “Muselmann” on the basis of Agamben’s interpretation of it? If yes, to what extend?
Judith Butler introduces her thoughts on the notion of abjection firstly by debating on notion of construction. According to Butler, construction is a concept which may be misunderstood at several levels of interpretation especially when being asked the question “who constructs?” If subjects are constructed within particular networks, then who/what does the construction? Butler implies that, to think of series of acts as necessarily having an origin in subject formation should be considered not as single act but a whole network of regulatory practices where the subject doesn’t have to contain its origin in particular agent. In this respect Butler suggests that sexualities and identities are constructed not by previous deciding subjects but performativity of things themselves. She also notes that this performance is citationaland reiterative. In this respect Butler uses the concept materialization of bodies instead of construction of bodies, in order to better point at the notion of abjection in relation to constitutive outside. In order for us to produce certain types of bodies as existing, we have to exclude unknowable, meaningless, unrecognizable bodies. Thus there occur bodies which may be identified as constitutive outside. In this respect, Butlerian notion of “performativity” is similar to which we mentioned while reading Zelig in Foucauldian interpretation on the basis of main paradigm that simply puts utterance as discourse. At this juncture, Zelig, who possesses an unrecognizable body which was under scientific examination and constant tendency of representation through linguistic repetition, is a “materialized body” and a “constitutive outside”.
On the other hand, Butlerian notion of “abjection” simply means inadmissibility of certain bodies to the codes of intelligibility. Therefore, Agamben’s understanding of “Muselmann” represents an “abject body”; it is a “materialized body” which is aimed to be thrown out of existing modes of bodies. We know that Zelig became focus of hatred in society because he unwillingly committed many crimes with the help of his ability to transform himself. Afterwards, Zelig, who was sued for spoiling public prosperity on many occasions, went missing. While papers were declaring that state was demanding chair, Dr. Fletcher spotted Zelig near Hitler in a photograph. It is satirical to see that a Jew is an official among SS generals, some years before Muselmanner came into existence in Nazi concentration camps. According to Agamben, the Muselmann stands in the third realm between humanity and non-humanity, life and death. Muselmann is an unknown, unrecognizable body which includes whole mass of unintelligibility. The Muselmann which Agamben describes stands outside of any particular, social materialization of bodies. But the point is that; Muselmann is a product of a particular system which Nazis have framed up with obsessively aesthetic intentions: Concentration camps. As a matter of fact, Zelig is a grotesque being who stands in borderline between humanity and non-humanity; though his existence is neither a result of systematic project, nor putting forth any kind of sense of death. Zelig is not a Muselmann; within the limits of his unique existence in the midst of humanity, he symbolizes not the ultimate consequence of Foucauldian Bio-Power, which Agamben points out in order to delineate Muselmann, but Butlerian abject body whose materialized individuality is neither tolerated nor assented and thus expounded as a societal scapegoat.
Butler & Zizek whisper that Zelig is the one! Meanwhile Adorno blesses Woody Allen through heavens
“I’ve never flown before in my life, and it shows exactly what you can do if you are a total psychotic.” Leonard Zelig
Three major steps that Zelig had passed are; first Zelig’s “normalization” process, discussed in first part of this paper with references to Bakhtin and Adorno and Horkheimer, second his “normal” process and that is interpreted in the second part of this paper with references to Foucault, Butler and Zizek. Zelig’s third step will be evaluated in this last part of the paper and as conclusion. Leonard Zelig returned to U.S after a heroic adventure of survival from Nazi air forces. In documentary, Oswald Pohl, former SS Obergruppenführer claims that Hitler was extremely upset about this event while Zelig was welcomed by vast crowd in New York City. According to Saul Bellow, the thing was paradoxical, because what enabled him to perform this astounding feat was his ability to transform himself; therefore his sickness was also at the root of his salvation. Zelig, who has previously called upon individuals to be no others but selves, is now advising them to become total psychotics, to which enthusiastic crowd applauds with appreciation. In this respect, two decisive questions come up to the mind of this paper: 1) Let us go back to this paper’s previous discussion, what would a Kafka fan like Adorno think of Zelig documentary? 2) Would Butler and Zizek be on fire with enthusiasm, if they were participants of Welcome Zelig Day?
This paper has already mentioned that Adorno, by using Saussurean terminology, was correlating image as art, and sign as science in modern society. Adorno implies that in modern society art is reduced to its aesthetic quantities, and it is devoid of technology and science. At this point, Adorno proposes the idea of Authentic Art; as the real art, that would bring image and signtogether. In this kind of artistic piece, elements of magic and knowledge may be brought together. To be more specific, authentic art for Adorno is basically modernist art. It is avant-garde, anti-realistic and also critical forms of art which would oppose social order, such like established hierarchies. Therefore he appreciates Franz Kafka as an authentic artist very much. Throughout this paper we’ve been dealing with Zelig and construing his existence by the help of glorious theorists of cultural studies, by positioning ourselves in the realm of fictional-cinematic domain. Only for this occasion, let us get out of fictional sphere, and meet with Woody Allen, like Jean-Luc Godard did with his 1986 documentary: Meeting WA. In Zelig, Woody Allen deciphers a period of time in history, in which he establishes a fictional character named Leonard Zelig. Throughout the production, Allen derives benefit from technologies of film industry; by cutting and editing the raw film footage, and reconstructing a historical environment, not only he presents audience an alternative reality in which Zelig is present, but also by consulting with leading academicians like Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Irving Howe, he convinces audience on the issue of persuasiveness that such a character may really have existed at that period. In this respect, Zelig is an avant-garde film also which contains elements of satire that enables audience to stay critical to social establishments of American society during 20’s and 30’s in this fictional-cinematic environment. Hence, Woody Allen seems to deserve to get the praise which Kafka receives from Theodor Adorno. Woody Allen, by using elements of image and sign together, as the way Adorno puts them, is practicing exactly what Adorno introduces as “authentic art” in Zelig, through which he develops psychoanalytical notion of psychosis as to be a possible element of societal behavior.
This paper, which claimed Zelig to be a Bakhtinian grotesque, an element of myth and magic that is under imposition of enlightenment as Adorno and Horkheimer explains, a fictional individual on which Foucault’s understanding of utterance as discourse is practiced in ultimate fashion, a Butlerian abject but not an Agambenian Muselmann, has covered most of topics it intended to do so far; except for Butlerian “resistance” and Zizekian “revolution”, which would provide a worthwhile ending for itself. At the end of documentary, Zelig’s declaration of his psychosis can be considered as the climax of his life-story, and also be interpreted as kind of evocation. While Slavoj Zizek was greeting us with a scene from the film, Usual Suspects, in which a man who was blackmailed with murder of his family, just went and killed his family himself, he was stressing the gaps of “Lacanian Symbolic”, which he simply puts as “intervention of Lacanian Real”. According to Zizek, this is a kind of revolution, by which the symbolic order is distorted by the interference of the Real. At this point Zelig’s declaration of his own psychosis to society and its mass admiration can be considered as an intrusion of the Real to the Symbolic order, although the scene is not that much disgusting like the one Zizek provides. Besides, probably Judith Butler has a better explanation.
According to Butler, positioning the abject within the Lacanian Real is not actually a good choice. Because there is something political and ethical which Butler expects from the very performativity of abjection. Performance includes repetition, which suggests that the object of performance gets weaker and weaker through repetition. Thus counter-performances are possible: Like LGBT organizations use the name “queer” which is attributed to them by heterosexual normativity, and afterwards, possess it, and perform it. In the documentary, Zelig acts as a counter performer that Butler suggests by the way in which he provides himself a space to co-exist with the rest of individuals in society, by performing in the end the “sickness”. Additionally, kind of psychosis with which Zelig is described not only stays no longer outside of societal normativity, but also as a result of its heroic display, it becomes the very fascination and inspiration to societal development. Zelig’s psychosis, which was once intended to get rid of, now becomes the innovative criterion of citizenry: Blessing of societal psychosis.