Titanic as the Thing

The story of the Titanic has never really intrigued me but I loved Zizeck's reading of it. Firstly, I had no knowledge of the overwhelming parallels between Morgan Robertson's story and the real event of the Titanic's crash. The fact that both ships were labeled "unsinkable" and then both sunk after hitting icebergs is eerily fascinating. The same description could be used for peoples' obsession with the underwater photos of the wreckage. People find jouissance in looking at images of the aftermath of a tragedy. One of the biggest blockbusters ever was so successful because it romanticized the story. The Titanic was no longer just a ship - rather, it was the symbol of a society solely ruled by class distinctions. And of course, Zizek excels in critiquing our need for symbols and meaning. He writes " Perhaps all the effort to articulate the metaphorical meaning of the Titanic is nothing but an attempt to escape this terrifying impact of the Thing, an attempt to domesticate the Thing by reducing it to its symbolic status, by providing it with meaning." Why did we feel it necessary to take an event from a century ago and attempt to find the symbolism in it? In relation to other tragedies of the 20th century, the crashing of the Titanic should rationally have little significance. This made me wonder how decades from now, humans, and in particular Hollywood, will depict the 9/11 attacks. Of course, that is entirely different than Titanic for numerous reasons. But I am curious to the new meanings we will need to apply to the Thing of 9/11.

First, let me try to make clear my reading of Zizek's use of joissance/surplus-enjoyment. In the case of the Titanic, I read him as stating that the awe we feel when confronted with the object itself, even through its 'objective' photographic image, comes in part from our wonder at how there can be such a Thing that still exists separately of its existence within a particular 'grand-narrative' (for the titanic, the problems of europe in the face of class division). I am still shaky on this, but it seems as if our apprehension of the Thing itself makes us aware, on some level, of an outside to the narratives in which it has been ascribed, and that this is the reason it causes terror and pleasure. How do other people read this section?

I remember visiting the site of the former WTC in January of 2002. Like many other tourists, I and my family walked up a wooden ramp next to the church across from J&R electronics superstore to more clearly see the rubble. Why was the ramp there, and, more importantly, why did we so much want to walk up it? Even though I don't claim to be able to reconstruct my thoughts in retrospect with the kind of precision to do detailed psychological analysis, the concept of jouissance seems eerily plausible as a reason for why we were far from alone in wishing to see the Thing that perversely survived its incarnation in historical and political narrative.

finally another reading of the titanic disaster:

Okay, here's a stab at how I read the Titanic section:
I understood from Zizek that, by positing "ideological fantasies", subjects can place themselves within an ideological framework. These fantasies control a subject's access to what's beyond the ideological sphere of possibility--they break past what ideology can never recognize about itself and what ideology takes for granted as beyond reality. This is (I think...?) how ideology reproduces itself.

So, the Titanic was a fantasy before it happened. It was the impossible, outside of the framework that ideology allowed, was "of the Other," but made an enormous impact because "it was expected"--it had been fantasized about. I think that this reading has strong parallels to 9/11 as the Thing. We had fantasized about terrorist attacks in movies, TV shows (and wasn't there some album released in 2000ish with a cover depicting the Twin Towers aflame?)--but it was something "beyond question" in ideology. When the towers fell, Americans' sense of reality was truly shaken (much as in the case of the Titanic).

I agree with Compute's reading of Zizek on the Titanic - that the fascination exerted on us by the photographs of the wreck is due to the gap between its symbolic function and pure material presence. When it sunk, the symbolic space was ready for it in advance and digested it easily, but when it resurfaced in the form of images, it is no longer clearly a symbolic vehicle for hubris, decadence, etc, but simply the material leftover. In this regard I wonder if Cameron's Titanic could be read as an attempt to fit the symbolic net over it once again, this time beginning with the wreck and revisiting the event of the sinking.
I don't think we were expecting 9/11 in the same way. There was a flurry of debate over what 9/11 meant immediately afterward, and many of the same symbols were used - hubris, end of American dominance, etc - but nothing as clear-cut as the Titanic. There also seemed to be an attempt to see it coming from the future: sift through State Dept. memos, records of terrorist threats and so on always in order to say that we did, in fact, see it coming. In this respect I think the 9/11 attacks shed light on Zizek/Lacan's ideas of the future anterior and of historical repetition. Specifically, the first thing pointed to as a sign was the 'failed' WTC attack in the early 90's(?), which immediately became a test for the 9/11 attacks.

This is a seriously belated comment. Sorry. First, I agree with morefuntocompute's reading. Although we fantasized about a grand-scale terrorist attack, the actual happening of it was "unthinkable", outside of the narratives to which it has been ascribed. Anyway: in getting my annotated bibliography in order, I came across this Zizek article that I anticipate citing in my final paper.


It's from a Zizek essay collection that, natch, is already checked out of the library. In this essay, Zizek points to the Titanic as "the other defining catastrophe" to compare to 9/11:

"One should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?
"Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested—just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise."

Aha's post brought up a question/surprise I encountered when first reading the Titanic pages--that is, I reacted to the excerpt about Robertson's Titan kind of scoffing, reading it as an obvious example of anterior and historical repetition. So, in hindsight, how can we establish "ideological fantasizing" re: a luxury liner wreck or a terrorist attack without some of the after-the-fact phenomenon of historical repetition? Where does one hold true without the other?

I agree with aha that 9/11 symbols aren't clear-cut (seems like, six years later, we're still conflicted about what it "means"), but I think Zizek's reading is pertinent considering our class's reading regarding "late-capitalism." Zizek places whatever symbolism that may be in the WTC collapse in the notion of virtual capitalism, the disconnections inherent in multinational capitalism--"the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction." This paranoic fantasy of living in an isolated sphere seems to relate to a fear of our inability to cognitively map: living in a self-imposed artificial sphere hinders our cognitive mapping skills. In an isolated sphere, how do we know what "threatens" us? Can we map what is artificial and what is real, our relation to the "real"? Maybe the problem is how we're mapping "our sphere" vs. "their sphere"--America wanted to "strike back", but clearly there was (and still is) no satisfying target. Zizek wonders in 2001 what America's next step will be; six years later, it seems that we've taken the reinforcing-of-our-artificial-sphere alternative instead of acknowledging our arrival in the "Real world."