Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Sliwinski, Sharon


This dissertation explores various examples of the concept of symbolic non-being within television drama. It seeks to investigate the ways and degrees to which television storytelling can represent and perform the psychoanalytic process of “working through.” The medium of television provides a unique framework for investigation as television does not just illustrate (represent) working through as something a fictional character experiences, but it also performs it structurally, through the incorporation of three medium-specific features: duration, immersion and repetition. Television represents working through on a mass scale – imagining a collective audience by addressing big political, personal and/or institutional issues that shape our understanding of what it means to be human, navigating a complicated, painful, and too often unjust, world. Symbolic non-being is relevant to this process as it represents a stage in the middle of a loss or trauma, where some element of the self has retreated from actualised personhood, and there are only two possible outcomes: reintegrated being (a successful working through), or non-symbolic permanent non-being (death or irreparable biological damage to that which constitutes personhood). The range of specific issues that television addresses can be broad but working through requires a point of identification for the viewer. Three case studies provide examples representing anxieties about the nature of existence through their depiction of narratives of non-being.: 1) moral injury in the season finale of M*A*S*H; 2) dementia and mother/daughter relationality in Grey’s Anatomy; and 3) prison temporality and social death in Rectify. The non-being that is experienced by the characters in each of these examples is almost always a temporary state – they enter the zone of non-being in different ways, specific to the nature of the kind of loss they have suffered. They may leave this zone by the end of the narrative, but the real-world correlation being gestured to in each case allows viewers to encounter a much broader zone of relationality which can then be more fully addressed in the real world, with a heightened awareness of the full range of implications of what has been lost and what has been taken.

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