Castration and Exploitation in Uncut Gems and Succession
25 May 2023
The vantage point of Uncut Gems is one where the camera is fast moving and savvy to urban chaos. It has to be, to follow the furtive movements of Howard Ratner, a Manhattan Diamond District jewelry store owner. Howard is overextended and living beyond his means, in part because of his compulsive gambling. He always sees the upside and worries less about the dollars and cents of money and more about the sexual charge of “hitting it big,” with the potential to make large amounts of money always coincident with sexual gratification in the film. Howard’s maneuvering makes him an exemplary means through which to explore the notion of symbolic castration.
The subjective reality of our signifying universe is one the Safdies appear to have a clear grasp of. Their film addresses the issues of castration and signification — inextricable as they are — in at least three ways. The first is the idea of mediation. Symbolic castration and entry into the symbolic order constitutes the subject as lacking and separate from the Real. Fundamentally, signifiers serve to separate the subject from the signified or supposed meaning — meaning itself an ideological fantasy. What this means is that one’s experience of sense stimuli, apprehension of beauty, and intersubjective interaction are all mediated by the signifiers that these experiences are transformed into. Only jouissance, unavailable to the subject insofar as it causes the subject to cease to exist, could be argued to be something unmediated by signifiers because it is diametrically opposed to them. At the same time, signifiers can provide a substitute jouissance, a facsimile that Howard Ratner revels in through his deception.
All of this is to say that in the case of Howard Ratner, we have a character who is disinterested in a “genuine” or “authentic” experience in the ideological sense. Instead, he celebrates his own Symbolic castration, makes hay out of what he is lacking, and ignores the limits society attempts to impose on his behavior. Howard is also a figure of finance, though he’s not a Patagonia-vest-wearing mutual-fund-slinging financier. This brings me to the second of Uncut Gems’ insights into castration, discourse, and exploitation in particular. Howard shows how the science of economics is put the lie to by the irrationality at the core of financial decision making. Take the gem itself, for instance, the “precious black opal” whose value is hotly contested. The Safdies’ film benefits from being read alongside Jesse Armstrong’s TV series, Succession, which similarly explores the idea of signifiers as objects of the economy and vice versa.
Finally, Uncut Gems expresses clearly the inscrutability of the subject signifier. Howard’s behavior is impossible for others to understand and he is equally unable to determine how he is perceived by others or what is of value to them. He may be uniquely inept by degree, but his struggle is not singular in kind. Every apprehension of a subject signifier is mistaken. Or, at the very least, correct only by accident and without legitimate epistemological certainty. Again, Succession makes a rich intertext for this mode of thinking, as Logan Roy stands as a similarly illegible figure.
“We both know the value is mostly ‘cause it’s memorabilia”
Howard’s relationship with authenticity and mediation shows precisely that authenticity has no value. It is a fantasmatic standard against which experiences and objects can be measured. Insofar as it serves as a guarantor of certain kinds of value, it is taken to be an imminent quality of an object or experience. But even when taken in such a way, its value is still specious. Howard’s attempt to pawn a Celtics’ championship ring from Kevin Garnett is exemplary of this idea. Though Howard can verify it’s supposed authenticity, it is a real championship ring for the Boston Celtics, reallytaken from Kevin Garnett’s finger, that authenticity doesn’t carry the value that Howard hopes it will. Instead, the jewelers scoff at the quality of the stones and their cut and asserts, “we both know the value is mostly ‘cause it’s memorabilia.” Though it is an “authentic” piece of sports history, its stones don’t have value due to their cut. As scarce as an NBA championship ring might be, its status as a piece of history doesn’t trump the value of full cut diamonds.
Though he carries the banner of authenticity if it is to his financial benefit, it is clear Howard cares not a whit about “the real thing.” When celebrating his immense financial windfall after a winning bet with the profits from the pawned Celtics ring, Howard ends up in his girlfriend Julia’s closet. After she walks in, he continues sending her text messages as if he hasn’t already arrived, propositioning her sexually. He seems to watch the screen and Julia herself in equal measure, attempting to assuage his anxiety about what she does when he can’t see her. The staging of the shots are quite clever, with at one point the reflection of Howard’s salacious text thread in his glasses. It illustrates what Lacan writes in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am in the picture” (96, corrected translation). As present as Howard is in the picture he’s painted in his eye, there is a flattening of the jouissance available through physical intimate contact — no more a sexual relation than the sexts — and his obscene messages. Because his act of copulation is already necessarily mediated by the non-relation imposed by the signifier, the sexting is not subordinate due to the physical distance between the two subjects. They are equivalent acts.
These individual examples are part of a greater pattern for Howard, a man who lives not by money but by credit. Every bit of cash he receives he gambles away. Everything he receives in the film — except for the black opal itself — is in exchange for promises or only lent to him. Howard doesn’t even seem to want money, he wants profit. What he valuesis the ability to turn nothing into something, just as he turns the nothing of speech into the something of objects, reputation, and intersubjectivity. In conversation with his father-in-law, Gooey, he lays out the value the opal might return at auction to which Gooey declares, “He’s rich!” After Howard replies with an unfavorable comparison between himself and Gooey, deferring to Gooey as the more financially advantaged, Gooey replies, “Who’s comparing? Rich is rich.” To Howard, though, the status of wealth means nothing. Turning wealth into exponentially more wealth is everything.
“It’s a correction, but it’s a fucking mistake”
How does Howard perform his financial alchemy? His ability to generate wealth — more through catastrophic burning than accumulation — is the result of the fundamental irrationality at the core of economic systems. Consider the black opal Howard tries to sell at auction. The notion of the auction is already a potent symbol for financial uncertainty and — ever the watchword — upside. One might think of the “assets” at auction as volatile. Howard’s valuation of the opal is constantly undercut. He believes it is worth a million, but Garnett offers him far less, in line with the auction’s appraisal. Kevin’s fetishistic obsession with the opal has nothing to do with its specific monetary value. He believes he has a connection with it, one that endures through history. Howard, on the other hand, can no longer see the shine of the opal after it is appraised for far less than he believed.
After the pitiful appraisal, Howard sees a rock, not the transcendent gem that the dinosaurs stared at. When he examines it after the auction, there is no accompanying cosmic dives into the gem’s colors or erotic fondling. Kevin’s relationship with the gem is unchanged, though. He still wants it and believes it will lead him to better performances on the court.
For both characters, the irrational, affective essence of determining value is at play. There’s no calculus one can apply to find the ultimate value of this opal. Why Howard no longer cares for it is the lack of potential upside. But the opal is neither the profit one might generate from it nor a nexus for intergenerational connection. Succession similarly exposes this irrationality of dollars and cents, as the Roy children, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv, navigate their potential ascendency to the throne of their father, Logan. One of my favorite examples in this vein comes from the season one episode, “Shirts Off.” With the possibility of Kendall being appointed CEO of Waystar Royco, the stock price has dropped precipitously. Kendall points to a graph of the deflated stock price and says, “that’s how much people don’t like me.”
Kendall’s interpretation isn’t a question of the health of the company, the soundness of their films or news “product,” or any other factor that could reasonably be said to influence the company’s value. Instead, he believes the drop in the stock price reflects people’s personal feelings toward him. And he’s right, of course! Just like Uncut Gems, Armstrong’s series points to the human factor in the economy which is never rational.
“Do you want to win by one point or fucking 30 points, KG?”
The question of economic stability and value is also a question of knowledge. For Howard, intersubjective knowledge is an enormous deficit. He claims he understands Kevin Garnett, but both characters have the wrong idea about one another and the position each has in the world. They also both claim filiation with the miners of the Welo Mine, but neither share the level of connection they think. This is because, in the Symbolic order, the subject becomes a signifier that can be read and interpreted but never definitively linked to a signified. As Howard cites a similar competitive drive to Garnett’s, attempting to convey the “why” for Howard’s constant exponential profit seeking, one can see Garnett’s incredulity. Garnett, on the other hand, tries to speak for the exploited Welo Mine workers, criticizing Howard for trying to enrich himself because of their hard work.
One need not adjudicate the morality of Howard’s position in particular, as he only takes to the extreme the standard operating procedure of capitalism — immoral on its face. What is more interesting is who Garnett sees himself as representing. But neither Garnett nor Howard are truly invested in the miners’ best interests. Howard may be right that at its core, both his behavior and Kevin’s on the court is driven by the same all-consuming lack that desire attempts to cover over through its ceaseless metonymy. But Kevin also understands that his actions in a game do not have an acutely exploitative quality in the same way as profit extraction does.
The most inscrutable subject in the texts I am examining today, though, is Logan Roy. More than Howard or Kevin, he is impossible for the people around him to understand. That failure to understand him is what is at stake in the season four episode, “Honeymoon States.” His three children work with a pathological fervor to understand both how their father feels about them and what their father intends for when he can no longer lead the company. This is actually a reasonable summation of the entire show, but “Honeymoon States” puts the sharpest point on the idea revolving around a penciled addendum to a hidden document that may be a strikethrough or an underline.
Logan holds his children in his orbit at equal distance from each other, and the him-ness of the CEO role of Waystar Royco forces the distancing of the children from one another as they angle for their father’s approval. Despite this, Logan is only minimally present in “Honeymoon States,” unable or unwilling to clarify his intention with regard to Waystar Royco. His absence is amenable to a Lacanian reading. The Roy name is what’s at stake for those wishing to stand in his footprints, but his status as a signifier is what draws his children’s desire toward him. What unfolds here is the working of the paternal metaphor of the name of the father. Molly Anne Rothenberg makes a pun on the original French, calling the paternal metaphor the “Non/Nom-du-Père.” In her more detailed elaboration, she writes:
the Non/Nom-du-Père, makes the subject a signifier, which means that the subject does not control what s/he means to others any more than s/he can know for certain what others mean. In effect, the “paternal metaphor” places a “minus sign,” so to speak, on the immediacy of the presence of the individual, raising the question as to the meaning of the individual, and in this way makes of the individual a signifier, bringing the individual into the realm of signification from the realm of the Real. (The Excessive Subject, 111)
Logan, Howard, and Kevin each exemplify this “minus sign” through the way in which they signify to the other in their respective texts.
Though Uncut Gems is less concerned with genealogy and the name of the father than Succession, these ideas come back to castration. Rothenberg equates the phallus, extricated from the subject as a master signifier through the process of psychoanalytic castration, with the Non/Nom-du-Père. It seems to me, however, that the two are distinct. The Non/Nom-du-Père may carry some residue of the phallus or project the illusion of phallic power — like the opal does to Garnett. And, not for nothing, in its glistening he sees his childhood, among other things. But the phallus is absolute in its non-existence and absence of content or comprehensible form. The Non/Nom-du-Père, on the other hand, exists in the symbolic frame that is constituted precisely by the phallus’s exclusion, in the form of the opal or the Roy name.
One might think of Howard and Logan as two different exemplars of castration. Howard, on the one hand, makes the most of his obvious lacking status and the divestiture of his unmediated jouissance. Logan, on the other, exercises his illusion of phallic dominance as a powerful magnet for libidinal energy and redirects the desire of all who are caught in his orbit. Howard’s pitiful presence and Logan’s domineering one are ultimately all for show, different discursive effects that obscure the signifier’s relationship to the absence at the core of the human subject. Howard and Logan may appear to be cut from different cloth, but there’s no possibility of difference in the cloth of the Real from which we are all cut — and no absent outline, no evidence that anything has been cut from it. For every subject, however, the cut is all there is.