Potential Space

by Michael McAndrew, MA, LPCC

“Intentional aggressiveness gnaws away, undermines, and disintegrates; it castrates; it leads to death. “And I thought you were impotent!” growled a mother with a tiger’s cry, to her son, who, not without great difficulty, had confessed to her his homosexual tendencies.” (Lacan, p.84, 1943)

Spoilers for Tiger King (2019)

Tiger King is, ultimately, a story about family romances and aggression. On screen we see two kinds of families of our protagonists: families of choice and families of blood. The relationships between our protagonists, each other, and their families are defined by aggression and aggressivity. Though these may seem similar at first glance, Jacques Lacan draws the line between the two, in blood as it were. Aggression refers to violent acts, like, say, feeding your husband to a tiger. Aggressivity “has got absolutely nothing to do with [aggression]. At the limit, virtually, aggressivity turns into aggression.” (Lacan, p. 177, 1954). Aggressivity is the relation that underlies many of these aggressive acts in Tiger King, but also those of love as well.            

One would certainly have to believe aggressivity underlies any fundamental decision to cage, breed, live among, and kill wild animals. Just as equally, a psychoanalyst would have to agree that aggressivity exists in the fundamental decisions of the protagonist to cage, breed, live among, and kill other human beings. This is the fundamental rule of Tiger King: kill or be killed, the law of the jungle.           

The plot of Tiger King hinges on the knotted lives of “Doc” Antle, Carol Baskin, and Joe Exotic. All three, for various reasons, have lived lives in which they collect and keep some of the most aggressive animals on planet Earth, tigers. They also “keep” a number of people who they demonstrate that same aggression and aggressivity on. “Doc” Antle keeps a number of women, of which he has changed their names to something more befitting his totemization of Indian culture. Carol Baskin, the much maligned “villain” of Tiger King, allegedly fed her first husband to a tiger, which brings her in direct confrontation with the titular Tiger King, Joe Exotic.            

Exotic himself “keeps” a number of young men (his “husbands”) and vulnerable employees under his sway. One of these employees, Saff Saffery, is perhaps the most sympathetic and compelling character in the series and pays a huge price: his arm is eaten by a tiger. Meanwhile, his employer, Exotic, is concerned only with his bottom line, stating “I will never financially recover from this.” (Goode, Chalkin, 2019) Ultimately, the vulnerable pay the price in acts of aggression — either on behalf of their employers or lovers — often at the hands of their other caged subjects, the tigers themselves.            

As stated in a viral meme featuring Slavoj Zizek, “but for Lacan, the circus is always in town.” It’s just that the price of this circus is not peanuts, but ones blood-defined by the aggressivity that underpins the relationship of the would-be masters of Tiger King.