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Slavoj Zizek

In a recent conversation, Hanif Kureishi was telling me about his new novel, whose narrative is different from what he wrote hitherto; I ironically asked him: "But the hero is nonetheless an immigrant with a Pakistani father who is a failed writer..." He replied: "What's the problem? Do we not all have Pakistani fathers who are failed writers?" He was right - and this is what Hegel meant by singularity elevated into universality: the pathological twist that HK experienced in his father is part of EVERY father, there is no normal father, everybody's father is a figure who failed to live up to his mandate and thus left to his son the task to settle his symbolic debts. In this sense, again, Kureishi's Pakistani failed writer is a universal singular, a singular standing in for the universality.

This is what hegemony is about, this short-circuit between the universal and its paradigmatic case (in the precise Kuhnian sense of the term): it is not enough to say that Kureishi's own case is one in the series of the cases exemplifying the universal fact that father is yet another "impossible profession" - one should make a step further and claim that, precisely, we all have Pakistani fathers who are failed writers... In other words, let us imagine being-a-father as a universal ideal which all empirical fathers endeavor to approach and ultimately fail to do it: what this means is that the true universality is not that of the ideal being-a-father, but that of failure itself.

Therein resides today's true impasse of paternal authority: in the (biological) father's growing reluctance to accept the symbolic mandate "father" - this impasse is the secret motif than runs through Steven Spielberg's films. All his key films - ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List - are variations on this motif. One should remember that the family to whose small boy ET appears was deserted by the father (as we learn in the very beginning), so that ET is ultimately a kind of "vanishing mediator" who provides a new father (the good scientist who, in the film's last shot, is already seen embracing the mother) - when the new father is here, ET can leave and "go home." Empire of the Sun focuses on a boy deserted by his family in the war-torn China and surviving through the help of an ersatz-father (played by John Malkovich). In the very first scene of Jurassic Park, we see the paternal figure (played by Sam Neill) jokingly threatening the two kids with a dinosaur bone - this bone is clearly the tiny object-stain which, later, explodes into gigantic dinosaurs, so that one can risk the hypothesis that, within the film's fantasmatic universe, the dinosaurs' destructive fury merely materializes the rage of the paternal superego. A barely perceptible detail that occurs later, in the middle of the film, confirm this reading. The pursued group of Neill with two kids take refugee from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the three, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magic effect - before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and care for them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the three next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind... Schindler's List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park (and, if anything, worse than the original), with the Nazis as the dinosaur monsters, Schindler as (at the film's beginning) the cynical-profiteering and opportunistic parental figure, and the ghetto Jews as threatened children (their infantilization in the film is eye-striking) - the story the film tells is about Schindler's gradual rediscovery of his paternal duty towards the Jews, and his transformation into a caring and responsible father. And is The War of the Worlds not the last installment of this saga? Tom Cruise plays a divorced working class father who neglects his two children; the invasion of the aliens reawakens in him the proper paternal instincts, and he rediscovers himself as a caring father - no wonder that, in last scene, he finally gets the recognition from his son who, throughout the film, despised him. In the mode of the 18th century stories, the film could thus also have been subtitled "A story on how a working father finally gets reconciled with his son"... One can effectively imagine the film WITHOUT the blood-thirsty aliens: what remains is in a way "what the film really is about," the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children. Therein resides the film's ideology: with regard to the two levels of the story (the Oedipal level of the lost and regained paternal authority; the spectacular level of the conflict with the invading aliens), there is a clear dissymmetry, since the Oedipal level is what the story is "really about," while the external spectacular is merely its metaphoric extension. There is a nice detail in the film's soundtrack which makes clear the predominance of this Oedipal dimension: the alien's attacks are accompanied by a terrifying one-note low-trombone sound weirdly resembling the low bass and trumpet sound of the Tibetan Buddhist chant, the voice of the suffering-dying evil father (in clear contrast to the "beautiful" five-tones melodic fragment that identifies the "good" aliens in Spielberg's Encounters of the Third Kind).