Why I Don’t Understand Slavoj Zizek: Psych vs. Columbo

Before I sat down to revise this essay about the ideas of Lacan as they are
understood through the philosopher and celebrity Slavoj Zizek I glanced at my Facebook newsfeed and read that the actor Peter Falk, best known for his portrayal of the detective Columbo, recently died at the age of 83.  This is sad, but for me timely, as a dead detective is both the problem and also maybe the solution that we are facing.

In his book How to Read Lacan, Zizek mentions Falk’s Columbo as an example of the “one supposed to know:”

In the TV-series Columbo, the crime – the act of murder – is shown in detail in advance, so that the enigma to be resolved is not that of whodunit?, but of how the detective will establish the link between the deceitful surface (the “manifest content” of the crime scene, to use the term from Freud’s theory of dreams) and the truth about the crime (its “latent thought”)… This strange reversal of the normal order has theological connotations.

Now, in psychoanalysis “the one supposed to know” is the analyst.  He’s the one who can properly decipher your speech and track down its hidden or occult meanings, and you go on babbling away in order to give him the chance to do his magic for you.  You free associate, tell him about the first time you masturbated, or describe that dream you had when you kept getting lost in airports, getting on the wrong flights and ending up in Hong Kong. The dream when you realized that your credit card was maxed out and you’d never get home again?  Anyhow, you do describe these things because you believe that the analyst already knows the truth and is just waiting for his chance to tell you.  You’re hoping that by free associating you’ll say the secret words that will cue Columbo.  The shrink will then solve the crime and even if that means exposing your guilt this is what you want him to do.  This is what you’re paying for.

The original television program Columbo was cancelled in 1978 and since then many things have changed on television. In the late seventies there were three networks and two superpowers, but today those old hegemonies are nowhere.  Today’s hegemonic power is buried under an onslaught of choices and niches, and Columbo’s counterpart, a fictional crime consultant for the Santa Barbara police name Shawn Spencer, is different from Falk’s detective, even if he serves the same function.  Spencer is played by James Roday on television series Psych, and he’s different from Columbo in one key respect. Spencer isn’t a detective at all, but a fraudulent psychic.

Both Columbo and Spencer are comic characters, both are small figures who appear incompetent but who, despite this incompetence, have and use their powers of observation to not only discover but also signify the truth of any given crime scene. However, while Columbo as the one who knows is both official and small (Columbo is a frumpy police detective whose wrinkled trench coat and scuffed shoes reflect his working class background), Spencer is devilishly handsome, fraudulent, and all pervasive.  Rather than humble and downtrodden he’s ironically self-reflexive. This is the detective as the one who is not supposed to know but who, somehow, still does.

Gus: You named your fake detective agency “Psych”? As in “gotcha”? Why didn’t you just call it “Hey, we’re fooling you and the police department; hope we don’t make a mistake and somebody dies because of it.”

Shawn: First of all, Gus, that name is entirely too long; it would never fit on the window. And secondly, the best way you convince people you’re not lying to them is to tell them you are!

Spencer is not a detective but a phony psychic, but somehow his powers of observation, his power as the one not supposed to know, are enough.  In fact, he apparently is what he claims not to be.  When Spencer comes upon a crime scene he does not merely spot the significant details of the scene, doesn’t merely find clues, but literally creates the clues.  He has the power of what Laura Mulvey called the male gaze.  When he looks at a discarded Starbucks cup the corporate logo, the significant aspect of the object, illuminates.  When he shuffles through filing cabinets the words he needs light right up for him.

In this way Shawn’s power doesn’t come from him but from the space he occupies.  As an irreverent wise-cracking man child he is supported by the ideology of the police-procedural rather than his own competence.  Television itself is what is real.  Shawn gets out the way of television.  He mocks himself, never invests in anything directly, and in this way he makes room for the real subject as it is defined by the televisual space around him.

Power today is a parody of itself and as such it is an invisible, always displaced, force.

Let’s go over that again, with a different example.  Let’s understand that therapeutic psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis in reverse may not be as different as they appear.  Both traditional psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis in reverse operate through transference.  That is, in a psychoanalytic relationship the patient transfers his own superego onto the psychoanalyst, or takes the psychoanalyst to be the punishing figure who knows what it is that God, parents, or society wants, but while psychoanalysis creates this transferential relationship in order to expose the basic fact that the superego and its injunctions is a product of the patient’s own identity and that it has no independent existence, the culture of psychoanalysis in reverse, a culture that is made material and actual through the television set, wants to hold onto its position and sustain the transference.  The best trick a representative of the one who is supposed to know can pull in order to hang onto the power given to him or her through transference, the trick that defines todays networked, hybridized, and de-centered power, is to deny that such power exists.

The psychoanalyst who works in reverse would tell you, “I don’t really know anything.  That suspicion you have that I know something, that I might be able to let you in on some secret, well that is your sickness itself.  All you need do is realize that I have nothing to tell you and you’ll be free.”

But how is this different than what the real psychoanalyst tells you?   If you keep thinking about it you just start biting your own tail.  Or, as Columbo once said:

I don’t thinks it’s proving anything Doc, as a matter of fact I don’t even know what it means. It’s just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble.

Peter Falk died last week. This is sad, but for me timely, as a dead detective is both the problem and also maybe the solution that we are facing. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Andy Miah

More From Thought Catalog