Name-of-the-Father in Interstellar — Işık Barış Fidaner


(Spoiler Warning: Watch Interstellar before reading this)

In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) there is a little girl (Murph) and her father (Joseph Cooper) living in a (post-)apocalyptic Earth with diminishing hopes for the future of humanity. Their story begins with an unseen entity that Murph calls her “ghost” giving messages to her by playing with gravitational forces and bending space-time to shift objects, like dropping books from a bookcase and arranging dust in patterns on the floor.

The ghost’s messages bring the father and daughter to a hidden NASA compound where the scientists want to recruit Joseph as a pilot to serve for a mission to save the future of humanity in a distant planet. Strangely, the NASA mission is enabled by a wormhole provided by an unknown entity (like Murph’s ghost) beyond space-time. NASA scientists call this entity “They.”

Although both entities are entirely unknown, Murph’s ghost and “They” form some kind of mystical continuation as a known-unknown (this term refers to things that we know that we don’t know, which is the post-fantasmatic mode of the unconscious [1]; Joseph says to Murph “science is about admitting what we don’t know”). The mystical known-unknown entity manifests itself through gravitational forces that are beyond the usual 4D space-time. NASA scientists explain this transcendence by saying “‘They’ are beings of five dimensions.”

Due to the relativity of space-time around the planets Joseph visits, he does not age during the mission, but his daughter Murph grows to become a young woman. The mission finally brings the unaged father to a strange compound of infinite corridors, where he can peek at Murph’s past self in her room: He is revealed to be the five-dimensional ghost hidden behind her bookcase. Joseph is the one who sends the encrypted messages from the future to Murph’s past self.

Thus the short-circuit between future and past beyond the usual space-time of multiple presents is constituted by the father himself. The symbolic significance of this short-circuit is indicated by Murph’s older self saying this to her father: “I knew you’d come back because my dad promised me.” Despite directly addressing her dad, she does not say “you promised me”; she instead says “my dad promised me” which reveals the central role that Name-of-the-Father plays in this promise which symbolically connects Murph’s past to her future.

Her father’s promise constitutes the symbolic “fifth” dimension beyond the usual 4D space-time (I call this dimension the combinatorial [2]). This beyond is represented by the gravitational forces that encrypt and convey useful information. One example of the useful communication with the fifth dimension is the scene where “they” gravitationally shake hands with an astronaut. Another example of useful information from the fifth dimension is the scene where the decryption of morse code results in the complex scientific formula that Murph was looking for. Such scenes seem to play on the double meaning of “gravity” which can also refer to the tragic seriousness of a situation. So the great secret revealed at the final part of the film is that the fifth dimension that we sense beyond the usual 4D space-time is the symbolic order of language itself, which also forms the unconscious.

So what is the film saying? It seems to say that Name-of-the-Father constitutes the symbolic basis of our reality, Murph and the fate of humanity entirely depend on the father’s promise (so the same scenario probably wouldn’t work with a mother making a promise to her son, although it might be worth trying). On the other hand, there is a certain disconnection between the person of the father and his symbolic function; this deep separation between the father’s embodiment and his authorization is revealed when Murph says “my dad promised me” instead of “you promised me.” So the person of the father isn’t really the one in control, it’s the daughter who interprets and realizes her dad’s promise, which means that the scenes where Joseph encrypts messages from the fifth dimension behind Murph’s bookcase merely stage Murph’s own fantasy. As long as Murph imagines a ghost encrypting useful information for her, she identifies as a “decryptor” of fantasmatic meaning, which makes her dependent on the father’s person. If she were able to traverse her fantasy, she would be able to identify as a “decipherer” of meaningless signification [3], which would free her from the father’s person [4]. This is why the film is not giving a patriarchal message by emphasizing the function of Name-of-the-Father.

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Making the combinatorial unworld of the unconscious permeable”

[2] See “Spatial and Combinatorial”, “The Paradox of the Phallus”

[3] See “The meaningless signification of the true truth”

[4] See “Decryption and Decipherment”

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