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Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Queer Gothic (Review Essay)

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Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Queer Gothic (Review Essay)
  Alex Proyas’s I, Robot    ·  7574 ·   Donald Palumbo JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS Abstract In part because it may be possible for a film adaptation to import legitimately motifs and concepts from the srcinal author’s entire corpus , Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) is far more faithful to Asimov’s1950’s story collection than is generally believed. While the film is pointedly based on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, first articulated in “Runaround” (1942), it is less obvious that nearly every additional concept and motif in the film, as well as many specific elements of plot and characterization, although innovatively recombined, are likewise taken from Asimov’s robot stories—especially “Little Lost Robot,” “Liar!,” and “The Evitable Conflict”—or from a subsequent Asimov story or novel whose motifs are first articulated in I, Robot . Like Proyas’s film, each robot story is an investigation of the Three Laws and their unanticipated interac-tions presented as a mystery solved by Susan Calvin and other U.S. Robots personnel. But Proyas’s film is also a “locked-room” murder mystery, as are most of Asimov’s robot novels, that also recycles such details from the Robot and Foundation series as, for example, Lanning’s appearance as a posthumous hologram or numerous elements of detective Spooner’s, experimental robot Sonny’s, and supercomputer V.I.K.I.’s characterizations and motivations. Fincher, Max. Queering Gothic in the Romantic Age: The Penetrating Eye . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 205 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-230-00347-7. $80.00.Haggerty, George E. Queer Gothic  . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 231 pp. Paper. ISBN 978-0-252-07353-3. $20.00.Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith, eds. Queering the Gothic  . Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 195 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-719-07815-6. $84.95. It would now seem official: the Gothic is queer. As is made clear by the titles of three relatively recent publications, George E. Haggerty’s Queer Gothic , Max Fincher’s Queering the Gothic in the Romantic Age: The Penetrating Eye , and William Hughes and Andrew Smith’s collection, Queering the Gothic , the Gothic either is always already queer or readily lends itself to queer readings (or lends itself to the latter because it is the former). On the face of it, this is hardly surprising. Yes, the Gothic is preoccupied with non-standard sexualities as libidinal urges run amuck. “Transgressive social-sexual relations,” as Haggerty puts it, “are the most basic common denominator of gothic writing” (2). From Matthew Lewis’s lascivious monk and his man-woman-demon consort in The Monk  to the homoeroticism of Anne Rice’s vampires, this much seems readily apparent. The complications come, as they invariably do, with definitions and impli-cations. These three books present differing ideas of what it means to queer something and what constitutes “the Gothic” in the first place. Can queer, for example, be detached from issues of gender and sexuality to refer, as Fincher suggests, to the breaking down in general of structures we take for granted (12)? Can the Gothic as a category be made to accommodate E. M. Forster and Michael Jackson as it does in the Hughes and Smith collection? Recalling debates in the 1980s about deconstruction, these three works taken together   Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Queer Gothic  Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock Vol. 22, No. 1, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts  Copyright © 2011, International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.  JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS raise interesting (if not exactly new) questions about the impact of the insti-tutionalization of queer reading. What happens to Hughes and Smith’s stated desire to “push the [Gothic] genre . . . once more away from the comfortable centre and back towards the uneasy margins of transgression and experimen-tation—a place where it undoubtedly belongs” (5) when queer becomes the preferred mode of reading the Gothic, when queer rather than restoring some titillatingly transgressive  frisson  to the domesticated text becomes a strategy of containment? What happens when queer no longer seems, well, queer? Haggerty’s Queer Gothic , published in 2006, is the first monograph devoted to reading the Gothic through the lens offered by queer theory and is in many ways both the most compelling and most problematic. After a brief introduction, the study is divided into three parts, “Gothic Sexuality,” “Gothic Culture,” and “Gothic Fiction and the Queering of Culture.” Each part then contains three chapters. Part 1, “Gothic Sexuality,” considers a range of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic texts “from the perspective of transgressive sexuality, loss, incest, and prohibited desire” (3). Within part 1, chapters 1 and 2, “Gothic Fiction and the History of Sexuality” and “Gothic Fiction and the Erotics of Loss,” focus on works by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Gothic authors Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Robert Maturin, and Charlotte Dacre in order to develop what Haggerty refers to as a “theory of the erotics of loss” (3). Chapter 3, “’Dung, Guts, and Blood’: Sodomy, Abjection, and the Gothic,” offers a very interesting analysis of the cross-pollination between “scandalous sodomitical reports” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which themselves employ conven-tions of the Gothic and the ways in which the language of sodomy trials and newspaper reports found its way into Gothic works, particularly those like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein  and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confes-sions of a Justified Sinner  that focus on male same-sex relations. The idea here is that there is a reciprocal relationship between public discourse and that of the novel, with each informing and inflecting the other. Part 2, “Gothic Culture,” as Haggerty explains, “moves beyond . . . closely argued questions about sexuality and discuss[es] some issues of larger cultural significance” (4). Within part 2, chapter 4, “The Horrors of Catholicism,” pro-vides a useful analysis of the relationship between anti-Catholicism and sexual desire in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British Gothic texts; chapter 5, “Psychodrama: Hypertheatricality and Sexual Excess on the Gothic Stage,” addresses several late eighteenth century- and early nineteenth-cen-tury plays, including Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre , Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort, a Tragedy , and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci , with an emphasis on the eroticization of domestic space and the ways in which these Gothic dramas “anticipate later developments in sexology and [offer their] own terms for explaining the rigors of cultural and the effects of normative sexual orga-Catholicism and sexual desire in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British Gothic texts; chapter 5, “Psychodrama: Hypertheatricality and Sexual Excess on the Gothic Stage,” addresses several late eighteenth century- and early nineteenth-century plays, including Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre ,  Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort, a Tragedy , and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci , with an emphasis on the eroticization of domestic space and the ways in which these Gothic dramas “anticipate later developments in sexology and [offer their] own terms for explaining the rigors of cultural and the effects of norma-tive sexual organization” (107); and chapter 6, “‘The End of History’: Identity and Dissolution in Apocalyptic Gothic,” provides a fascinating reading of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man , as well as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams  and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ,   which demonstrates the ways in which male same-sex desire is connected in the apocalyptic imagina-tion to cultural collapse. Part 3, “Gothic Fiction and the Queering of Culture,” pushes the study forward in time in order to consider how later works respond to and develop earlier queer Gothic themes. Thus, in chapter 7, “‘Queer Company’: The Turn of the Screw  and The Haunting of Hill House ,” Haggerty examines how the heroines of Henry James and Shirley Jackson revise the plight of the typical Gothic heroine; in chapter 8, “‘Queerer Knowledge’: Lambert Strether and Tom Ripley,” Haggerty again returns to James—this time, to The Ambassadors , which he juxtaposes against Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley  in order to demonstrate the way the latter in effect queers the former by high-lighting how closeting precipitates tragedy. And in chapter 9, “Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture,” Haggerty speculates on the dread and desire embod-ied in Rice’s gay vampires—the ways in which they “express culture’s secret desire for, and secret fear of, the gay man” (187). The study then concludes with a brief three-page afterword reemphasizing the transgressive edge of the Gothic and the extent to which Gothic tales may assist us in “redefin[ing] familiar sexological categories” (201). Organizing Haggerty’s widely ranging and provocative study are two underlying—and arguably contradictory—assertions. The first is a historicist argument concerning the reciprocal interaction and influence of the Gothic and understandings about sexuality, especially in the late eighteenth century. What is so fascinating about the novels by Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, Dacre, and others for Haggerty is not just that they were produced at “the moment battle lines of cultural reorganization were being formed” and therefore offer insight into the production of the modern subject by recording the “terror implicit in the increasingly dictatorial reign” of middle-class values (10); beyond this, Gothic novels in fact constitute a type of Foucauldian sexual discourse produced “at the cultural moment when sexuality and sexual iden-tity, as well as subjectivity and gender, [were] being codified” (51), and they Review Essay   ·  77 JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS 76 ·   Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock  Review Essay   ·  79 JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS 78 ·   Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS participated in establishing these codifications. To reread the Gothic from this perspective then is to appreciate it as a “testing ground for many unauthor-ized genders and sexualities” (2) that “anticipates the history of sexuality and gives that history its most basic materials” (5). The Gothic novel thus can be construed as an important node in the distributed system of modern subject formation, one that “helped shape thinking about sexual matters” (3). Haggerty’s second organizational premise is a psychoanalytical one drawn primarily from Freud: “normative” psychosexual development is a violent process predicated upon loss—and most especially upon the foreclosure of eroticized same-sex bonds. The sexual excess and dysfunctionality that are the hallmarks of Gothic novels therefore from Haggerty’s perspective explore a particular version of erotic desire: “a desire founded on loss” (22–23). Dis-placed same-sex desire manifests in the Gothic as eroticized violence and an unquenchable urge to dominate. Lewis’s lurid monk Ambrosio, for example, is thus, according to Haggerty, as much a victim as Matilda or Antonia: He is the victim of a culture that forbids his desire and renders him remote from his deepest urges; the victim of a fear of sexuality that makes it possible for him to express himself only in violent terms; and the victim of fear that makes it impossible for him to fulfill the gentle love he felt for Rosario and sends him first toward simple sexual excess, then necromancy, and later, inevitably, toward incestuous violence. (27) Radcliffe’s Ellena in The Italian , in contrast, is able to experience heterosexual love for Vivaldi only after an eroticized reunion with her lost mother: “The ideal relationship is the one that Ellena lost in childhood and rediscovered at the climax of the novel. The originary same-sex love that had been foreclosed and repressed emerges to bless this union of victims” (35–36). It is this unveiling of the “brutal and brutalizing” (44) process of modern subject formation that renders the Gothic novel “queer” and by extension gives it its transgressive edge. In the study’s brief introduction, Haggerty explains that his approach to “the question of ‘queer gothic’” will “attempt to show the ways in which all normative—heteronormative, if you will—configurations of human interaction are insistently challenged and in some cases significantly undermined by these fictions” (3). What Gothic fictions do from this perspec-tive is to denaturalize—or to demythologize in a Barthesian sense—hetero-sexuality by depicting alternative sexualities and then dramatizing the cultural forces that produce “proper” subjectivities while disciplining those who refuse to conform to social expectations. “In its excess, gothic fiction thereby chal-lenges the cultural system that commodifies desire and renders it lurid and pathological” (10). Fathoming the “extreme sexual behaviors and fantasies of the past,” contends Haggerty, “can contribute to liberatory thinking and tran-scend the essentialist-constructivist controversy for a queer connection that puts us in closer touch with the ways in which sexual practices were organized in the past” (20). The irony of Haggerty’s approach to queering the Gothic, however, is that this historicist objective is undercut by his reliance upon Freudian psy-choanalysis and especially by his postulation of a primal homosexuality, an “srcinary same-sex love.” Here Haggerty appears to invert the heterosexual-ity/homosexuality and natural/unnatural binaries but not to displace them. That is, his approach to queering the Gothic shows the ways in which—as he himself puts it— heteronormative  configurations of human interaction are cultural constructions, but rather than maintaining the constructivist position I associate with queer theory, he seems to imply that homosexuality is nature to heterosexuality’s culture. This sense of a natural sexuality in the form of a transhistorical, srcinary homosexuality is then accentuated by the scope of Haggerty’s study, which transitions in part 3 from the late eighteenth century to the twentieth. Haggerty’s bipartite theoretical framework attempts to offer both a histori-cist and a psychoanalytic reading of Gothic sexualities. One way to address the apparent contradiction would be to suggest that the Freudian framework employed is not inevitable, universal, and transhistorical, but rather is con-tingent upon a particular cultural configuration—Haggerty doesn’t say this clearly enough, but one can anticipate such a response. I find two other dif-ficulties with Haggerty’s psychoanalytic framework for queer reading however; first, it assumes the same process of psychosexual development for men and women, and, second, although Žižek is occasionally referenced, Lacan’s notion of an even more primordial loss occasioned by the misrecognition of the mir-ror stage significantly is never addressed. As regards sexual difference, while Haggerty for the most part focuses his attention on male characters, when he does address female characters, he treats them in the same way, presum-ing in each instance that the taboo against homosexual desire during early psychosexual development occasions a primordial loss that manifests later as violence or dysfunction. Inasmuch, however, as—working from a Freudian paradigm—the little boy’s first love object is the mother, surrendered during the Oedipal cycle only as a result of castration anxiety, what would seem to be foreclosed is incestuous heterosexual desire, not same-sex desire. At the very least, Haggerty needs to justify treating the male and female characters he considers in the same way. With reference to Lacan, (who is not included in the study’s index although his theory of the symptom is referenced late in the text in connection to Žižek [189]), it strikes me that a reading more attentive to his notion of the mirror stage might complicate Haggerty’s contention that it is the foreclosure of the possibility of same-sex eroticism during psychosexual development that  Review Essay   ·  81 JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS 80 ·   Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS constitutes the srcinary loss underlying and precipitating Gothic violence. For Lacan, the first misrecognition of the mirror stage creates a permanent sense of insufficiency. So while in a curious way Haggerty implies that a cultural reconfiguration acknowledging the polymorphous nature of sexual desire and allowing it to flow freely would obviate the Gothic, a Lacanian reading might suggest that even if a greater range of sexual variation were permitted, lack and thus desire—and presumably the Gothic that gives form to and expresses frustrated desire predicated upon lack—would remain. Perhaps because Max Fincher is aware of the complications an orthodox psychoanalytic framework introduces for queer reading and wishes to avoid the reef on which Haggerty’s study arguably snags, psychoanalysis and espe-cially Lacan and his theory of the gaze are notably absent from his 2007 study, Queering Gothic in the Romantic Age: The Penetrating Eye , which takes the gaze as its central  focus . Given the centrality of the idea of the gaze to Lacan and Lacanian-influenced theorists such as Laura Mulvey, the relegation of any explanation for this omission to a brief and debatable comment in the intro-duction that the study does “not investigate or apply Freud or Lacan’s theories with any sustained analysis” but that the results are “implicitly dependent upon them” (19) is surprising—but then this adaptation of Fincher’s disserta-tion, outside of some quick references to queer theorists including Judith But-ler and Eve Sedgwick in the introduction and an occasional nod to Haggerty (none of whom are included in the wholly inadequate index), eschews theory almost entirely, concentrating instead on close reading and some conflicted rumination on the extent to which a given author’s sexuality does or does not structure his text. Of particular note here is also Fincher’s expansive understanding of queer. Early in the introduction, Fincher offers a concise Sedgwick-derived explanation of queer reading in which this practice “attempts to de-essential-ize categories of identify that are spoken of as essences, like sex or gender are sometimes spoken about” (4). The questions prompted by this (grammatically compromised) overview include what categories of identity outside of sex and gender Fincher has in mind and whether queer theory can or should be sepa-rated entirely from sex and gender. In connection to both these questions, Fincher on the same page suggests that queer can also describe or be attentive or responsive to narrative struc-ture. According to Fincher, The formal characteristics of Gothic writing, such as its Chinese-box nar-rative structures, its multiple narrators, and interrupted stories, invite a cir-cuitous reading attitude. Such a roundabout approach stands as a symbol of how we can read Gothic writing at the level of narrative as intimately related to the “perverse” or “wayward”. Gothic stories never follow a “straight” course, a fact that in itself makes them queer. (4) The logical slippages in this chain of thought are intriguing. First, playing on the multiple associations of the word “queer,” which can connote both a general sense of oddity and a specific non-normative sexuality, as well as the similar dual associations connected to “straight,” which literally means non-curved and serves as a metaphor for heterosexuality, Fincher in essence proposes—or imposes—a sexualization of narrative in which chronological, monological narrative structure is associated with normative sexuality while deviation from this narrative structure is associated with sexual “perversion.” A “queer” (odd/sexually deviant) text is one that is not (told) “straight” (lin-early by one narrator/sexually normative). This proposition, provocative in and of itself, is then complicated still further by Fincher’s assertion that convoluted Gothic narrative structures “invite a circuitous reading attitude” (itself a circuitous formulation). This reference to the reader introduces a question already present in the ambiguous formulation of the idea of “queer reading”: does “queer reading” refer to an act of interpretation in which the critic isolates queer themes and motifs already present in the text or to a general practice or “orientation” of the reader. Put another way, the question seems to be: Is it the text that is queer or do queer readers read queerly? This is a tension that undergirds the entirety of Fincher’s text. For the most part, his close readings of Gothic texts argue for the presence of queer themes, themes that denaturalize normative categories of sex and gender. Thus, he explains that “A queer reading attempts to articu-late these points of disruption in culture where the heteronormative is resisted, particularly by unconventional gendered behaviour(s) that disturb its under-pinning” (13). Then, however, he tosses in assertions suggesting that queer reading is a form of reader response; for example, he explains (in relation to Lewis’s The Monk ): “Rosario’s confession represents for many a classic coming-out scene, where the truth about one’s sexual identity and desires is revealed to others. A queer reader would strongly anticipate that Rosario will declare that he loves Ambrosio, because of the emphasis given to unspeakability and his ‘unaccountable behaviour’” (89). The slippage here is from queer texts to queering the text to queer readers. This question of where precisely queer inheres—whether it is located in the text or in the reader or both—is in fact foregrounded by Fincher’s empha-sis on the mediation between subject and object performed by the gaze. Queer, on the most basic level for Fincher, is about calling attention to the arbitrary nature of the sign—the fact that there is no intrinsic connection between signifier and signified. This occurs in Gothic texts through performances of what Fincher productively refers to throughout the text as “hyperbolic gen-der”—the Gothic in essence is revealed to be a kind of Butlerian drag show in which theatricalized and exaggerated performances of gender highlight it as socially constructed. How one interprets the Gothic, however, depends  Review Essay   ·  83 JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS 82 ·   Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock JOURNAL   OF   THE   FANTASTIC   IN   THE   ARTS on one’s ability to “see” this—that is, to borrow from anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s famous formulation in The Interpretation of Cultures , to distinguish between a blink and a wink by either reading the Gothic (as) straight or (as) queer. As Fincher explains—sadly, without any reference to Lacan’s seminar on Poe’s “Purloined Letter”—the gaze is always about concealment and revela-tion, which is to say the imbrication of power and knowledge. There is, for example, the subversive gaze between secret lovers and conspirators in which one seeks to acknowledge the other without alerting the authorities (what I, not Fincher, refer to as the wink). As Fincher observes in the introduction (in another tortured phrase), “Eighteenth-century culture continues a tradition of how the exchange of looks and the gaze is a means by which sexual desire can be communicated between men and women” (18). This is the empowering gaze that seeks to reveal while maintaining concealment. Its proper interpreta-tion depends upon semiotic competency—that is, one must be “in on it” to comprehend the intention of this gaze. And then there is the Foucauldian dis-ciplinary gaze that seeks to reveal secrets and to root out subversive activities. While I would refer to this as the hegemonic gaze, Fincher chooses to refer to it as the “normatively . . . male gaze” that “highlight[s] a homophobic need to uncover a ‘core’ secret in a surface-depth model of subjectivity” (19). Fincher explains that the subtitle to his study, The Penetrating Eye , has thus been employed to “play upon this homonym of I/eye to indicate the reversibility of the positions of subject and object of the gaze” (19). The irony of Fincher’s introduction is that, given his attention to pen-etrating gazes, he doesn’t stop to consider his own subject position as the critic who seeks to “penetrate” the text in order to reveal its queerness. Granted, Fincher’s intention is celebratory rather than punitive—he engages in queer reading and more or less “outs” the Gothic not then to condemn it for its perversity but to revel in its challenges to heteronormativity. Nevertheless, his is the gaze that unveils the subversiveness of these texts. This irony is then compounded by the fact that, through just the sort of reversal of the gaze he theorizes, Fincher inserts himself into the text and indicates his own sexual preference on the first page of the introduction, thus becoming in effect the subject of his study. (Fincher recalls that at an early age he was discouraged from dressing up as a witch for Halloween because it wasn’t considered gender appropriate. He writes, “Looking back now, my subsequent interest in ghost stories, horror films and later Gothic probably stemmed from an identification with the witch as a transgressive outsider figure, one that I can now see we might describe as queer. . . . My performance as a witch, cross-dressing and making up, had nothing to do with desiring men—that happened not long afterwards. But it was queer” [1].) When Fincher later notes in the introduction that for the purposes of his study he will restrict his understanding of queerness as signifying “desire for and between  men ” (13; emphasis mine), the question of exactly where queer-ness resides—in the text or the reader—again becomes difficult to avoid, and this question then becomes the focus of chapter 1, “Reading the Gaze: A Culture of Vigilance.” In this lead-off chapter, Fincher chooses to focus not on Gothic novels themselves, but on the ways in which interpretation of the novels of Horace Walpole, William Beckford, and Matthew Lewis has “been informed and influenced by a fixation on them as ‘homosexual’ writers” (23). In “wanting to get to the bottom of the mysteries” concerning these writers’ sexualities, “the boundary between Gothic fiction and biography of Gothic writers merges” (23). Fincher seems to want to have his cake and eat it too when he asserts that reading these authors as “queer” rather than straight or gay can “help us to read their novels queerly, but not in a deterministic, relational way to sexuality that closes other readings” (23). The idea here is that queer is a much broader and more encompassing rubric than gay. To read Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto  as the work of a gay man, for example, closes down interpretation of the text (the biographical fallacy). In contrast, to read Walpole as queer, as refusing alignment with one gender, as “confus[ing] the boundaries between masculinity and femininity” (29), and as comprehend-ing gender as a construct (28), opens up interpretive possibilities for his texts according to Fincher and makes them playfully subversive. Similarly, as con-cerns Beckford, Fincher asserts that “queer” better describes the “emotional complexity of [his] sexual desires without limiting [him] to an identifiable type of sexuality” (34). Fincher’s argument is that to identify Gothic authors as gay is to cir-cumscribe and constrain interpretive possibilities for their texts and he thus gives consideration to their correspondence and biographies to suggest that their sexualities defy any kind of easy assignment within the hetero-/homo-dichotomy. If we must call these authors anything, Fincher essentially asserts, let us call them queer—a term that (at least from his perspective) rather than reifying sedimented understandings of gender undermines them and thereby complicates interpretation of the productions of these authors. The point on which he closes, however, is that through reading their correspondence and biographies, we derive insight about the “importance of secrecy, suspicion, gender ambiguity and the gaze to the queer subject and homophobia,” themes which are all present in Gothic fictions (44). Chapters 2 through 6 of Fincher’s study then engage in queer readings of specific texts with an emphasis on representations of hyperbolic gender. Chap-ter 2, “Guessing the Mould: Or, The Castle of Otranto ?,” interprets Walpole’s seminal Gothic novel as “a cautious warning against suspicious narratives and paranoid interpretation which characterizes homophobia in the eighteenth century” (45). The novel in Fincher’s interpretation is built around unspeak-
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