Abstracting the Real :Take Shelter

“To language, then – to language alone – it is that fictitious entities owe their existence; their impossible, yet indispensable existence”. (Bentham, 1843, p.198)

This paper will explore Jeff Nichols 2011 film, Take Shelter with respect to the theme of psychosis. In addition, Lacan’s concept of foreclosure will be brought into proximity with Korzybski’s concept of abstraction. The reasoning for this is as follows, Lacan approaches psychosis on the grounds of the individual encountering life experiences that cannot be reconciled with their existing semantic frameworks, creating gaps in the experience that need to be plugged by being named and identified.The genesis of the psychotic structure is the foreclosure of the “name of the father”, this will be discussed in further detail in the paper.  From Lacan’s perspective, the delusion functions  to stabilise these encounters that are internally destructive and perplexing, by providing shape to the experience. Korzybski’s model of cognition focuses on how the individual abstracts from their experience, how each person creates their own semantic environment on the basis of how they attend to incoming information from their biological interface, and from the inferences they create. Both thinkers acknowledge the destabilising nature of chance or perplexing encounters on the human psyche, in the form of the Real for Lacan, and of the territory for Korzybski. Furthermore, both emphasise the importance of the subjective position, how each individual makes sense of their world through language.


In Jeff Nichols 2011 film, Take Shelter, Curtis LaForche (played by Michael Shannon) encounters recurrent dreams of malevolent storms; hallucinations that violate and disrupt the Imaginary as he grapples to abstract meaning by stabilising a delusion, one that promotes impending eschaton. The gravity of his delusion draws his young family, his employers, colleagues and townspeople into the fold. Curtis is driven by a compulsion to build a storm shelter to protect his family from a perceived volatile and ominous storm. The etymology of the name LaForche derived from LaForce meaning “to build a fortress” is a signifier of particular weight, Curtis will stop at nothing to build his shelter and protect his family from a chaotic and perplexing reality.


Curtis LaForche, his wife Samantha and their young deaf daughter Hannah live in a modest house in rural Ohio. Curtis works as foreman at the Delta Oil corp, inspecting and maintaining wells  in the locality with his colleague and friend Dewart. From early on, there are references of the family’s struggles to defend against the demands of the economic  Other, Samantha attends car boot sales to sell trinkets that she makes for additional income and there are phones calls to insurance companies to secure a cochlear implant for Hannah and to provide her the necessary level of care and schooling. In addition, Curtis and Samantha are also learning how to read sign language to facilitate communication with Hannah. This a peripheral notion that is returned to throughout the film, Curtis is learning to read signs. In Seminar 3, Lacan speaks of the highways of the signifier(Lacan, 1956, p. 232) of the Symbolic, the routes to follow. When the concept of foreclosure is raised, a gap appears in the Symbolic; there are no highways to follow, “what does the road user do?” asks Lacan.


Strom Dream: inchoation

Curtis has been experiencing recurrent dreams of a storm, one of excessive volatility. As he stands in his backyard, his hands and face slowly covered in a rain that has a black, oil like quality, cracks of thunder go unheard by his deaf daughter who continues to play, unaware of the impending storm. As lighting crashes in close proximity to the house, the family dog leashed to the fence becomes increasingly agitated. Three whirlwinds appear and advance towards the house, Curtis grabs his daughter to bring here to safety. The dog breaks from its leash, and runs towards Curtis, he attacks, sinking his teeth into Curtis’ arm. Curtis screams in pain and wakes up. In the  morning following the dream, Curtis stares distantly from the breakfast table rubbing his arm, something of the Real has left its mark,something perplexing. His wife is unsure if he is listening to what she has been saying to him. On his journey to work  he makes a detour to a local hardware store, he begins buying materials to build an outdoor paddock for the dog, the family pet must now be distanced. The dream has announced the inchoation of his delusion. The repeated manifest content is the rain that Curtis later describes as having a “motor oil” quality; throughout the film this signifies the barrier between dream and reality.

Protection – Intervention:

In the two dreams that follow, something of the Real struggles to be represented, to be abstracted. In the second, Curtis and his daughter are driving through the storm, the “motor oil” rain (and Curtis’ has selected this signifier to represent a dream element; Curtis works for Delta Oil) smudges across the windscreen. He loses control of the vehicle. As he checks for his Hannah’s safety, shadowy figures smash the windows of the car and remove his daughter from his grip. Again he awakens struggling for breath. In both of these dreams, there is a similarity in Curtis’s position, he attempts to protect his daughter from some intrusion, and in both cases he loses control of her. On waking from this dream, Curtis now makes plans to fix the disused storm shelter at the back of the house.


In the third and final dream, Curtis descends the stairs of his house to find Hannah at the window, looking at the storm. As the house starts to tremble, Curtis grabs Hannah in an attempt to protect her. In a perplexing move, all the furniture levitates, the house is free falling. Curtis is terrified, struggling to hold on to Hannah as gravity brings everything crashing down. When Curtis awakens this time, he has urinated in the bed; the losing control that was prevalent in his dreams has now crossed over to his waking reality.


Curtis and his young daughter appear in each dream; Curtis’ wife Samantha appears in none of the dreams. The storm, the rain and the Curtis’ failed attempts to protect Hannah are persistent themes presented to the audience.. It is interesting to note that at this juncture, there are no more dream references for Curtis, from here on hallucinations are the vehicles of the delusion. The unconscious within is now radically experienced as the unconscious without, to which Curtis is a witness, a martyr. As Lacan posits in Seminar III, what we observe in psychoses “a truth that isn’t hidden, as it is in the neuroses, but made well and truly explicit and virtually theorised” (Lacan, 1956, p.28).

Family History

Faced with these intruding nightmares, Curtis makes an appointment with the local GP. On their meeting, Curtis confesses to his bed wetting and recent dreams. It is at this point, something from his past is drawn into focus. The GP inquires about Curtis’s mother, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was his age (35), and has since been in assisted living. The GP recommends a psychiatrist, Curtis does not follow up on this, the financial imposition is too great to put on his family, instead Curtis visits a counsellor that offers free consultation.


A reluctant Curtis works through his family history with the counsellor. He recalls his experience of his mothers psychosis; as a 10 year old, his mother left him in the carpark and disappeared. The authorities later found her “eating trash out of a dumpster in northern Kentucky”. His father placed his mother in assisted living, Curtis notes that he was raised by his father, who, incidentally “died last year”. Again, this is something of a peripheral element in the film, Curtis being raised by his father, and Curtis now as a young father himself, what is Curtis’ response to the paternal role?

His Mother was absent for a lot of his upbringing (Curtis’ wife, the  mother of his child is notably absent from all of his dreams). On his way to visit his mother to establish if her symptoms were similar to his, he stops at the library, he selects a book called “Understanding mental illness”. Curtis is making attempts to find signification, a way to name and identify his experience. Can the Other can provide the required re-assurance, a guiding map or model he can adopt to define his experience in the form of the visit to the GP, the visit to the library, the visit to the counsellor and finally the visit to his mother? None of these exchanges offer Curtis any stabilisation however, none correspond or can be reconciled to his experience. On entering his mother’s assisted living quarters, Curtis quickly gets to business in establishing if his mother ever encountered “bad dreams”. Her response is lacking, her experience was something of a paranoia, she recounts how she “thought people were watching talking about her”. Curtis terminates the conversation at this point, he can see that this distresses his mother, furthermore this has done nothing to provide him the external validation he was seeking.

Constructing the delusion / Building the shelter:

It is in this period of film that any previous models of Curtis’ experience have become entirely insufficient for him to deal with the dreams, hallucinations and feelings, these encounters with the Real. He must construct a viable semantic environment in the form of constructing a storm shelter, a response, an abstraction of the Real. With the certainty in his new semantic model, he asks Dewart to help him build the shelter. This conviction leads Dewart to agree, but not entirely without his own doubts. In an attempt to build his fortress, Curtis takes on bank loan  privately, his certainty towards his delusion bypasses any risks that the economic  Other may have on the well-being of his young family. His obsessive desire to protect his family in what he authenticates from the Imaginary has the inverse effect for them in the Symbolic. The once stable father, employee and friend is now radically destabilised from these roles. The insurance risk in taking machinery from his workplace to build the shelter leads to his dismissal from his job and to Dewart’s unpaid suspension, terminating their friendship. With no money coming in, and loans to pay for the shelter, Hannah’s cochlear implant and her schooling, Curtis has jeopardised his family’s security. With the intent of protecting them from the apocalyptic vision, he has totally exposed them to Symbolic destitution. The notion of protection is central to the entire delusion, it is this response that is problematic for him. As these actions can no longer go unnoticed, Curtis speaks his truth to his wife, something of the Real is evident, something he can’t explain, a feeling “ Its more than just a dream, its a feeling, something bad is coming,and  I just need you to trust me”.

A Radical Certainty:

In the weeks that follow from his suspension, former colleagues and townspeople are gathered together for a family lunch day, all are aware of Curtis’ recent behaviour, many aware of his mother’s mental illness. Rumours have been spreading and when Curtis’ former friend Dewart aggravates Curtis to breaking point, the formerly reserved Curtis becomes eclipsed by the Other, there is an unwavering equivalence between the map and the territory. What is immediately apparent to the townspeople is the intensity of Curtis’ delusion, it immediately polarises his audience, they may hear his words, but they simply cannot understand the certainty of his declaration. Lacan neatly encapsulates this concept “Reality isn’t at issue for him, certainty is. Even when he expresses himself along the lines of saying that what he experiences is not of the order of reality, this does not affect his certainty that it concerns him. The certainty is radical. The very nature of what he is certain of can quite easily remain completely ambiguous, covering the entire range from malevolence to benevolence. But it means something unshakable for him.” (Lacan, 1956, p.75)

The Storm has Passed:

In the final stage of the movie, a storm siren is signalled. Samantha wakes the family, Curtis leads them to the storm shelter. As they settle down, the full extent of his paranoia is evinced in the items within the shelter, gas masks, canned food supplies, drinking water, and oxygen tanks all signify the preparedness for the impending dread that Curtis fears. Samantha and Hannah are scared, both of the storm without, and Curtis’ behaviour within. As they awaken the following day, Samantha urges Curtis to let them out, to open the shelter, assuring him the storm has passed. A visibly shaken Curtis looks at his daughter and wife, to protect them now means to confront his own fear, to traverse it, a choice that can only be made by modifying his map. He opens the door with extreme apprehension, evidently conflicted between his model of reality and Samantha’s. When he does open the door, he see’s nothing but cloudless blue skies…the storm has passed.


With the Schreber case, Lacan asks, “Which signifier is it that is in abeyance in his inaugural crisis?”(Lacan,1956,p.292) To extend this towards Curtis, we could argue the signifier “protection”. What does it mean to protect for Curtis? What is he protecting against?  Throughout the film we are faced with the dynamic between uncertainty and radical certainty. The  young LaForche family struggles to meet financial demands in an ever uncertain financial climate; televised paranoia informs of financial disasters, natural disasters, terrorism, all uncontrollable, unpredictable looming threats,the  insurance companies are deciding the fate of their daughters hearing implant, the possibility of inheriting a mental illness are all prevalent fears of losing control to something bigger that what Curtis can control. His response to these pressures is to protect, to build a shelter from the intrusive Other. In his dreams, his attempts to protect are intervened upon, intruded upon. Although he finds some redemption in the materialised reality of his delusion, what he faces inside the shelter is himself.

Abstracting the Real:

Alfred Korzybski (1876-1950) was a polish semanticist and author of Science and Sanity: A guide to Non-Aristotelian thought and general semantics (1933). His work largely influenced people like Gregory Bateson, and in my opinion can be best thought of as pre-cursor to Ernst Von Glasersfelds radical constructivism. For Korzybski the terms “abstraction” or the “consciousness of abstracting” were used to highlight the non-verbal, unconscious aspects of human experience and the non-allness, non-identity inherent in our use of language. Korzybski’s import was to develop a model that took account of the science of the early 20th century; non-repeating fluctuations observed at the level of quanta, neurobiological processes at the level of organism and to extend from this a self-reflexive bottom up –top down model of human cognition. He did not deny there was an objective world, but rather there was no way of knowing what that could be in any absolute sense, often stating how “no object exists in isolation” (Korzybski, 1933, p.61).


In short to explain this model, the human nervous system abstracts from the entire realm of comprised experience (non-verbal/ unconscious, neuro-biological, cellular, molecular, atomic, quantum processes) these are lower order abstractions, and what Korzybski refers to as “events”. The higher order abstractions, referred to as “inferences” are judgements, beliefs, predictions, statements, and statements about statements, concerning identification and language, and are informed by lower order abstractions. This process stabilises into what Korzybski calls the “semantic environment”; the meaningful relation to the experience or viability. What he feels to be problematic is how language (in particular aspects of Aristotelian logic) create static pictures of reality, treating dynamic processes as nouns / objects. Furthermore, through this process of abstraction, much of the experience is absent, our nervous systems cannot abstract everything that is actually occurring (for example, our bodies do not detect radio waves, see acetylcholine transmissions,  or perceive atoms without instrumentation…). When we describe an object, we use signifiers, but are unable to identify all the characteristics; objects are constituent of event processes that are beyond our biological interface. Finally to make judgements on these “non-all” abstractions in the form of generalisations, is invalidated by the agent who does not and can not know all the characteristics of the system of which they are constituent. “The number of characteristics which we ascribe by definition to the label is still smaller than the number of characteristics the object has. The label, the importance of which lies in its meaning to us represents a higher level of abstraction from the event and from the object” (Korzybski, 1933, p.387 ).This is the basis of Korzybski’s maxim “the map is not the territory” and “the word is not the thing it represents”. In a practical sense, Korzybski sought promote the idea that the intensional use of language should be questioned and the extensional should be employed where possible, this in a sense was the application of his general semantics, to assist the individual in questioning generalisations and static ideas of themselves and the world around them.

In consideration of Lacan’s foreclosure as a way of conceiving the psychotic structure, to foreclose is to foreclose the name-of-the-father, the phallic signifier, the Symbolic dimension. The inability to triangulate experience exposes the psychotic to the overbearing excesses of the Real and Imaginary registers. The Real “whatever subsists outside the domain of symbolisation”(Lacan, 1966, p) is encountered in all its strangeness.  In consideration of the paternal function, the installation into the Symbolic provides a location where the enigmatic aspects of human experience can be phrased, through and to the Other. From “the meaning of delusion” Seminar III “ One forgets that the dialectical changeability of actions, desires, and values is characteristic of human behaviour and that it makes them pass over to strictly opposite values as a function of a change of direction in the dialogue. The ever present possibility of bringing desire, attachment, or even the most enduring meaning of human activity back into question is such common experience that it’s stupefying to see this dimension forgotten”(Lacan, 1956, p.23). From this perspective, the Name-of-the Father is the installation of a type of foundational map or model, a way of being in a socialised reality, a way of directing questions of the drive and of identity to and through the Other. The pathways of the signifier can lead to culturally shared maps and models, all providing some similarity to that which they represent. With the triangulated positioning inherent of the Symbolic, a distance is occupied that prevents total equivalence between map and territory. In “the highway and the signifier” from Seminar III  Lacan draws focus to highways and minor roads, with respect to signifiers and what is signified “ What happens when we don’t have a highway and we are forced to combine minor paths, more or less separate modes of grouping meaning, with one another when we go from one point to another? To go from this point to that point we shall have a choice of different components of the network, we can take this route, or that route, for various reasons”(Lacan, 1956, p.292)

The encounter with the Real as the unpredictable, perplexing and traumatic chance event is a radically incompatible intrusion to past and existing models. Symbolic frameworks provide the possibility of re-assurance or stabilisation, but never absolute certainty. In the psychoses, the inability to locate or identify with the Symbolic reduces an isolated cartographer to radical certainty in their construction. Thus the higher order abstractions are reported as astonishing or malicious revelations and visions, or as phantasmatic horror, from the Imaginary spectrum of the paranoiac to the metanoiac. The radical certainty of hallucinations and signs can aggregate to completely de-stabilise or annihilate past modelling. To abstract from the Real, is to provide meaning to these encounters, this yields its difficulty in the inability to confer with previous or alternative models. This is to sketch some unchartered aspect of the territory, one that must include its cartographer as witness to the unconscious, but excludes the ability to distinguish between similarity and equivalence. The inability to find a shared outlook can lend itself to a certainty that offers stabilisation in the form of a delusion. Thus the operative certainty in the psychotic is the confusion between orders of abstraction, confusing words with things, map with territory.


“As if we don’t, all of us, all of the time, have visions, as if we are never in the grip of phrases that just pop into our heads, sometimes brilliant, illuminating phrases that orientate us. Obviously, we don’t put them to the same use as the psychotic does” (Lacan, 1956, p.110).



Bentham, J. (1873) The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Edinburgh, William Tait.


Retrieved from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2208


Korzybski, A. (1933) Science and Sanity: An introduction to non –Aristotelian systems and General Semantics, 5th Ed.,New York,  Institute of General Semantics


Lacan, J. (1956) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Psychoses  Book III,  East Sussex, Taylor &  Francis Group


Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits,  New York, Norton


Nicols, J. (2011) Take Shelter, Los Angeles, Sony Pictures Classics.


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