The real gaze: Film theory after Lacan, Todd McGowan

Introduction: From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze

The Emergence of Lacanian Film Theory

  • (the mirror stage) the wholeness of the body is seen in a way that it is not experienced.
  • link the illusory qualities of film to the process through which subjects enter into ideology and become subjected to the constraints of the social order.
  • Louis Althusser, early film theorist, who was a crucial bridge between Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage and the cinematic experience – he emphasized the social dimension of the kind of misrecognitions that followed from that of the mirror stage.
  • Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli (french), Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath (journal Screen) – first theorists to bring psychoanalytic concepts to bear on the study of cinema in a systematic form
  • the spectator inhabits the position of the child looking in the mirror -> a sense of mastery based on the position that the spectator occupies relative to the event on the screen
  • Christian Metz (The Imaginary Signifier) – the spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but  present there as perceiver -> escapes the sense of real absence -> overcomes the sense of lack, endured by only the existence in the world

  • arrangement of the cinema hall – reproduces  the mise-en-scene of Plato’s cave (Jean-Louis Baudry)
  • cinema dupes us into seeing what is missing into ourselves and our world (the Imaginary)
  • imaginary order – what we see
  • symbolic order – the structure supporting and regulating the visible world
  • the imaginary hides both power of symbolic order in shaping my identity and its inability to do so completely
  • the real – the indication of the incompleteness of the symbolic order
  • -> limitations of language, inability to say it all or speak the whole truth
  • Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – associates the gaze with the male spectatorship and with the ideological operations of patriarchal society.
  • 1996 – collection of essays proclaiming the death of Lacanian-centered psychoanalytic film theory – leading to its genuine birth

The Gaze as Object

  • objet petite a – a lacuna in the visual field
  • the gaze acts to trigger our desire visually, and as such it is what Lacan calls an objet petite a – object-cause of desire
  • it is not he look of the subject at the object, but the gap within our looks marks the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see
  • the gaze – an objects; a form of objet petite corresponds to each of our drives
  • the gaze is the objet petite a of the scopic drive – the drive that motivates us to look -> a lost object, an object that the subject separates itself from in order to constitute itself as a desiring subject
  • the loss of the object inaugurates the process of desire -> the subject is incomplete or lacking because it doesn’t have this object, though the object exists insofar as it is missing
  • trigger for the subject’s desire – not as the desired object
  •  objet petite a – indestructible -> irreducibility  to the field of the big Other or signification
  • objet petit a doesn’t fit within the world of language or the field of representation -> it is what the subject of language gives up in order to enter into language, though it does not exist prior to being lost
  • the gaze compels our look because it appears to offer access to the unseen, to the reverse side of the visible; it promises the secret of the Other, but the secret exists only insofar as it remains hidden – the subject cannot uncover the secret of the gaze, and yet it marks the point at which the visual field takes the subject’s desire into account
  • satisfaction available to the subject – following the path = drive
  • the gaze = what is lost in the translation from the Real to Signification
  • Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” – perfect example for the gaze
  • the skull is a blank spot in the image, the point at which spectators lose their distance from the picture
  • the skull says: “you think you are looking at the painting from a safe distance, but the painting sees you – takes into account your presence as a spectator”
  • Hegel: death it’s the absolute master: it deprives the subject from any sense of mastery, and this constitutes much of the horror with which we respond to it
  • the gaze marks the point in the image at which the subject loses its subject is completely subjected to it -. the subject loses its subjective privilege and becomes wholly embodied in the object
  • the gaze is not the spectator’s external view of the filmic image (traditional Lacanian film theory), but the mode in which the spectator is accounted for within the film i itself.
  • the gaze is a blank point – a point that disrupts the flow and the sense of the experience – within the the aesthetic structure of the film, and it it the point at which the spectator is obliquely included in the film.

Desiring Elsewhere

  •  Gaylyn Studlar: the desire for mastery is not he most primordial desire or fundamental human desire. A masochistic preoedipal desire precedes the oedipal desire for mastery. // a masochistic, passive conception of desire comes closer to approximating our experience of the cinema than does a mastering, active conception
  • desire -> masochistic because its goal is not finding its object but perpetuating itself -> submission of the subject to the object
  • no matter how much power one acquires, one always feels oneself missing something – and this something is the objet petite a.
  • the Other’s seeming enjoyment acts as an engine for desire, not mastery
  • the object is drawing the subject toward a traumatic enjoyment – the enjoyment (jouissance) of total submission to an unattainable object
  • the enjoyment (jouissance) = intrusion of the real
  • enjoyment lacks nothing
  • The gaze triggers the subject’s desire because it appears to hold the key not to the subject’s achievement of self-completion or wholeness but to the disappearance of self in the experience of enjoyment
  • satisfaction accompanied by trauma
  • when the object appears to seek mastery, it is actually trying to find another, less traumatic way of relating to its object
  • the gaze is no the vehicle through which the subject masters the object but a point in the Other that resists the mastery of vision -> it is a blank spot in the subject’s look, a blank spot that threatens the subject’s sense of mastery in looking because the subject cannot see it directly or successfully integrate it into the rest of its visual field
  • the gaze = what is lacking, is non-specular, is not graspable in the image
  • film holds out the promise of enjoyment through the way that it deploys the gaze as objet petit a

Privileging the Unconscious

  • through cinema -> subject position similar to the dreams
  • in the dream state, our faculties of critical thought disengage, and we accept the experience as it presents itself
  • our inability to see is crucial because when we see things going in the direction of trauma, we necessarily turn away -> we cannot consciously will ourselves toward an encounter with the real
  • no experience marginalizes consciousness like the experience of the dream – or film spectatorship
  • the cinematic experience can lead to the encounter with the gaze
  • during the process of associating, the analyst interrupts the subject with an interpretation which, if correct (and correctly timed), hits the subject with weight of the real. It is only after this encounter with the real that subjects can begin to interpret their relationship to this real -> the filmic gaze can function in the same way as the analyst’s interpretation
  • consciousness is a barrier to the real

The Radicality of the Cinema

  • the gaze shows itself in the cinema
  • cinema similar to dreams
  • in dreams we don’t approach things, but thins show themselves  to us
  • the gaze is much rather to be heard than seen
  • we fantasize about the form of the objet petite a that we can acces the least
  • the relationship to the gaze is central to the political and existential dimension of film
  • ideology constantly works to obscure the traumatic real of the gaze because this real threatens the stability of the social order that ideology protects -> the stability depends on the illusion of wholness and the power to account symbolically for everything
  • the real traumatizes not only the  subject that encounters it but also the big Other -> exposes the imposture of all authority => political power of the gaze
  • in spite of the trauma, the encounter with the gaze provides the base for freedom from the constraints of the big Other -> understanding of the nonexistance of the big Other
  • the big Other = world of signification – meaningful wolrd
  • the price for meaning is freedom
  • in the moment of the traumatic encounter, the subject experiences the groundlesness – and ultimately the nonexistence – of the big Other and the symbolic world that the big other sustains – Paul Eisenstein “it exposes the ridicoulness or stupidity of the principle that enables us to make sense of the world. It reveals the Law as something we institute, but whose ultimate ground cannot be found within the domain of reasons”
  • our ability to contest an idelogical structure depends on our ability torecognize the real point at which it breaks down, the point at which the void that ideology conceals manifests itself

Deployment of the Gaze

  • films that make the gaze present through fantasy
  • films that obfuscate the gaze through a furn to fantasy 
  • films that sustain the gaze as a fundamental absence
  • films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze


McGowan, T 2007, Real Gaze, SUNY Press, Ithaca, US. Available from: ProQuest ebrary. [19 November 2016].

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