12 July 2012

Breaking Bad: A Verbal Event

[Spoiler Alert]

It's Season Three of 'Breaking Bad'. Jesse is recovering from addiction and trying to get over the loss of his girlfriend. He is attending group therapy for recovering addicts. On one occasion he starts bitching about his job, pretending to the group that he is working in a laundromat instead of telling them the truth - he is working underneath the laundromat in an illegal, but very hi-tech, crystal meth lab. The hIgh qualIty 'product' Is recognized on the streets by its distinctive blue colour.

So Jesse rants on about his immediate boss and how he has never even seen or heard the name of the top guy in the organization and how everything is shrouded in mystery. The group therapist, who, up to now, has not been bad, says that it all sounds 'Kafkaesque'. Jesse pauses, trying to take in the word, not quite knowing what it means but being all the more impressed for that. He is of course beginning to understand something of it by attaching meaning retrospectively - 'it must mean what he heard me say', or even, 'it must mean what I said'.

There is genius at work in the writing of 'Breaking Bad'. There Is irony in the idea that the therapist who delivers the signifier 'Kafkaesque' is himself being lied to; like one of Kafka's characters. But there's more: like Poe's Purloined Letter (according to Lacan, anyway) this signifier travels.

Later we see Jessie bitching again, but this time to two of his pals in a cafe. Of course, on this occasion he decides to use the new word he has learned from his therapist to describe his dissatisfaction. His friends are highly impressed. Spurred on by this, he suggests they start up their own operation on the side - stealing meth from his hated employers and selling it to a 'whole new market': the addicts in his therapy group!  Jesse's friends infiltrate the therapy group and, subtly and indirectly, sing the praises of the blue stuff and spread the word that it is available locally.

We see how the word (signifier) has slightly different shades of meaning for each person who uses it or hears it and how words actually work on us. We are creatures of language and are swept along by it.

As an addendum, this is also a good example of why most of us are better off with psychotherapists who can resist the temptation to be 'clever' and, instead, stay with the vocabulary of the patient.  Words are events.

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