Waldo’s Beautiful Things: Possessing & Possession in Laura
Professor William MacNeil, Southern Cross University
5 April 2018 at Lismore campus with Zoom links to other locations.
Otto Preminger’s 1940s noir classic, Laura, has been read by Lacanian cultural critic, Joan Copjec, as an allegory of “liberalist envy” with the character of Waldo Lydecker functioning as a critique of John Rawls’ ‘theory of justice’ and its predication upon a subject redistributing resources under the neutral, and presumably, envy-free ‘veil of ignorance’.
Such a reading assumes that Laura’s issues are, largely, legal, even jurisprudential—a position with which I have no quibble. But I want to depart from Copjec’s reading in this paper, especially in her focus on the subject and its constitution, as well as combustion. For I propose to read Laura as a film not so much concerned with subjects as objects—or, more simply, things. And what spectacularly beautiful things Laura proffers: exquisite objets d’art, chic fashion, striking design. All of which points to a certain kind of psychic condition which, I will argue, underpins Laura: namely, fetishism. And the fetish nonpareil in the film is, of course, Laura herself. She is the not so ‘obscure object of desire’ for all and sundry, possessing everyone in the film, and, in turn, being treated by those possessed, as a possessionherself—though the nature of these sorts of possessory regimes differ dramatically.
I want to explore Laura’s competing possessory regimes, utilising psychoanalytic concepts such as hysteria, repetition compulsion and the death drive, as well as fetishism and sado-masochism to unpack this vivid filmic representation of the ‘Law of Desire’ as a desire for what I take to be law’s objet petit a—feminine sexuality itself.
Professor William MacNeil is a scholar of jurisprudence and cultural legal studies. He is The Honourable John Dowd Chair in Law, as well as Dean and Head of the School of Law and Justice, Southern Cross University, Australia. His most recent book, Novel Judgements: Legal Theory as Fiction (Routledge, 2013),won the Penny Pether Prize for Scholarship in Law, Literature and the Humanities. MacNeil is the editor of Edinburgh Critical Studies in Law, Literature and the Humanities and is, at present, working on a study of jurisprudence in science fiction, fantasy and horror. As of February 2017, Professor MacNeil is the Chair of the Council of Australian Law Deans.