The favorite dwelling-place of today’s zeitgeist (where one sees our time’s psycho-political malady in, so to speak, her domestic, unelaborated form) is perhaps not just in the rising number of today’s admittedly ever-enjoyable TV series shows but, to be more specific, in the “American animated comedy-drama series”.
To even zoom in at a singular spot, it is in Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a series which started its first season four years ago and now ranked by Thrillist magazine as the best Netflix Original Series of all time, and with a new fifth season to premiere this 14th of September.
What makes BoJack a fascinating, even redeeming, character (try Googling “bojack saved my life”) despite BoJack’s own self-assessment that he is a “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” (the title of season 4, episode 6)? It is not simply that one meets in BoJack an endearing figure of hyper-active self-awareness of one’s shitty-self (in his own line): “I know I’m a piece of shit. That makes me better than all the pieces of shit who don’t know they’re pieces of shit.” No one, of course, thinks that such theme of “shitty life” depictions is what sustained, from 2014 to 2018, the popularity of the series.
What is it about BoJack that fascinates people? To speak in Lacanian vocabulary, BoJack gives us a clear view of what is it like to be entangled in a tumult of imaginaries without the beneficial cut of the symbolic; or at least not until the very ending part of season four.
In BoJack, the Socratic pop-line that “an unexamined life/self is not worth living” meets its educative limit because here one sees a case of a consistent/rigorous self-examination but one that is simply cycling within a serially exciting, and ever-failing, universe of the Imaginary.
Meanwhile, from the vantage point of the viewers (but not BoJack’s), and which adds to the finer delights of the series, are the sightings of the Symbolic: comedic elements floating within that very universe and which BoJack failed to take notice of for being all-too-serious in his excessive self-loathing self-consciousness.
We are referring, of course, to the enjoyable bits of self-referential structures tickling the series from time to time.
To give one sample, in season 1, episode 5 (“Live Fast, Diane Nguyen”), there is this conversation between Diane and the manager of a funeral parlor, this last trying to help Diane select the best funeral package appropriate to his client:
“Tell me about your father.”
“Well, he was a mean, sadistic alcoholic, who never supported anything I did and actively delighted in seeing me fail.”
“Hmm, I see. Sounds like you’re looking for our Piece of Shit Dad Package.”
“That would be too good for my father.”
“Hmm, I see. Might I then suggest our Piece of Shit Dad Package Would Be Too Good For Him Package.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
The best example, however, of this recursive structure (one elementary aspect to watch out when looking for the “symbolic” field) is the classic Hegelian set-up where, in a miraculo-comical way, a named “genus” of a series (say, a list of “80’s songs”) suddenly appears as one of its own list of “particulars”.
This structure appeared at least thrice in the series: twice in season 1, episode 8 (“The Telescope”) and once again in season 3, episode 2 (“The BoJack Horseman Show”). This did not escape the notice of many viewers: Google “bojack all generic songs”. In the first instance, one sees BoJack driving his car (and don’t miss the side-joke of the scene: a stall named “Gorbachev Stain Removers”!), and singing a “generic 80’s song” … [funky electronic music] “Generic ’80s new wave, Beep, bop, beep, bop, beep, bop, This is a song from the ’80s, The decade which it currently is …”
So, to complete the Lacanian list of the triad terms, where is the Real in BoJack Horseman? Everything in it! All the unsurpassable tensions, torsions, gaps both in the imaginary and the symbolic fields of BoJack’s human/nonhuman world attests to the presence of the Real.
But seriously, a most important Real not fully outlined in the BoJack series (lesson: don’t expect a TV series to have everything that we need to learn!), of course, lies somewhere else. It is in the original, 1867 edition of Das Kapital, when Marx was still showing his homely, Hegelian traces. It is the Real of political economy. No true Hegelian/Marxist, listening to BoJack singing that “generic 80’s song”, can fail to notice the homology of what is happening in that scene and what Marx wrote.
Here’s the quote from Capital: “It is as if alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.”
No Žižekian can also fail to notice the repeated use of this quotation from the first chapter of 1867 Capital in Žižek’s latest works: in “Less Than Nothing”/2012, in “Disparities”/2016, in (co-authored work with Ruda and Hamza) “Reading Marx”/2018, and, of course, in Žižek’s best book (philosophical- and pedagogical-wise), “Absolute Recoil”/2014.
To ponder both on the brilliance of this line and on the question why Marx removed it in the succeeding versions of Das Kapital is to touch the Real of the “absolute gap” between Hegel and Marx.
So to all BoJack Horseman fans and fanatics: enjoy your symptom and go “bird”-sighting for Lacanian-triad elements in the coming BoJack season! But don’t forget that the real Real is also somewhere else.
Hal Odetta is a pen name. He is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Philippines and works with the Manobo indigenous peoples of Mindanao.