Kubrick’s Monolith and Lacan’s Gaze

Jacques Lacan’s psycho-analytical theory was highly used, quoted and related to film theory and film interpretation and analysis, and actually with the media in general. Film and media theory absorbed Lacan’s concepts and ideas and used them in its own relation with the spectator.

Films were discussed in psychoanalytical and Lacanian terms for quite a while now, starting from critics such as Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath and the French Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli. Laura Mulvey translated the Lacanian gaze in terms of cinematography, by identifying, in Hollywood cinema, a “male gaze”, which regarded the female counterpart as an object of desire, an object to stimulate fantasies, an object which was utterly different and could stand as “the other”. The male characters of films were subjects while the female ones were objectified, and the relation established between them was the one between the desirer and the object of desire, which was invested with such features as to facilitate and incite the existence of desire. The desire, as Mulvey says, exceeded the screen and was assimilated by the male spectator. Hence, the gaze was present within and outside the filmic realm[1], and positioned the spectator in the role of the child looking in the mirror. The viewer standing determinate a voyeuristic perspective, placing him on a different level from the cinematic narrative, a place of seeming mastery,[2] which gave him a false sense of power and authority over the film while his position was still passive.[3]

Todd MacGowan stresses, in Real Gaze, the errors made by Laura Mulvey in her depiction of the cinematographic gaze, and states that she deflected from the Lacanian meaning of the gaze, for the gaze is what is lost in the translation from the Real to Signification[4]. Is the object of desire which’s existence is only possible as long as it is intangible, unreachable, as long as it remains just the fuel of desire.

Gaze in Lacan’s later work refers to the uncanny sense that the object of our eye’s look or glance is somehow looking back at us of its own will. This uncanny feeling of being gazed at by the object of our look affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye’s look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order.[5]

Resuming the above quote, I understand the gaze as an encounter with the real, which is lost forever once the mirror stage, and desired for the same amount of time by the subject. The split between the three Lacanian orders is so traumatic that any trace of it is erased from our conscious minds and all that remains is the forever impossible desire of going back to the primordial state, to the state previous to the symbolic structure and order of the world and of our own interior worlds. The encounter with the real subsequent to the mirror stage is, despite our craving for it, almost as traumatic as our split from it. The perspective of the gaze seen as the encounter of the subject with the real is crucial to my following argumentation on the function of the gaze in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The gaze is present, as Todd MacGowan informs us, in films, more, it is a characteristic of films. As we, in our everyday life, on our daily routine, and in our conscious state avoid the traumatic interaction with the gaze, films as well as dreams enable our encounter with it, by neutralizing our power to consciously alter the narrative, it is in a way a forced encounter, which in the case of films we willingly put ourselves up for. He recognizes four ways in which the gaze is present in the films’ medium: films that make the gaze present through fantasy; films that sustain the gaze as a fundamental absence; films that obfuscate the gaze through a turn to fantasy; films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze.[6]

According to MacGowan’s study, any film can be discussed in “the gaze” terms, so how did I hinder my own work with the hazardous choice of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, with the mammoth film which 2001: A Space Odyssey is? I will simply state it. It was instinctual. Reading the paragraph quoted above about the object which looks back at us, the final scene with the character front in front with the monolith entity in a tacit dialogue came immediately to my mind.

MacGowan does include Kubrick’s cinematographic work in the first category of films depicting the gaze, by appealing to the fantastical dimension of his films, highlighting the coldness and intriguing lack of human affect which Kubrick’s films bring to the screen. The fantastical dimension in which the films are set enables Kubrick to bring into question the obscenity of the authority and with it the inconsistency of the symbolic order which governs our world. The understanding of these two issues leads the subject who acknowledges them to freedom.[7] But this is not the direction this essay is going to take. I have no interest in discussing the idea of authority or invoking the computer HAL 9000 as an obscene figure of authority.[8] I am more inclined to put the film in the fourth MacGowan’s category: films that enact a traumatic encounter with the gaze, but not through an escape in the fantastic realm of one’s fantasy as it happens for example in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but by actually introducing the gaze in the image, giving it an imagistic representation in the body of the black monolith.


Jacques Lacan exemplified the presence, the encounter with the gaze with Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors”. The 16th century interior in which the two characters are represented is violently disrupted by a figure in the middle, which at a first sight resembles nothing and puzzles the viewer. The figure of the skull floating randomly between the painting’s borders annihilates everything the painting otherwise depicts. All the symbols of power, arts and science are disavowed by the view of the skull, which stresses the futility of everything in the symbolic order. I am bringing this 16th century painting into discussion because I find the skull’s intrusion, given as an example of the power of the gaze by Lacan himself, similar to the presence of Kubrick’s black monolith in the middle of the white neoclassical room, as well as in the African Savannah. This element’s presence is uncanny. The monolith is there but viewed from a rational perspective, shaped by the rules of the symbolic world, it is not supposed to be there. The image is complete without it and its presence only bothers, stirs and makes the viewer uncomfortable, exactly as the skull in Holbein’s painting. But in contrast to the skull, the monolith has a neutral shape, cannot be read as an imagistic symbol for anything. It is a black block with no traces of features to trigger any kind of connotative meaning, in the middle of an image which would make perfect sense otherwise. Unlike the skull which is immediately read as a symbol of death, as a memento mori, the monolith stands for nothing but itself. One cannot pinpoint its nature or its purpose, its beginning or its end, the only fact that one can know is that the monolith exists, it is real and it is present. Furthermore, it is literally a foreign body, an extraterrestrial entity.


The monolith appears in Kubrick’s film four times. For me, the most memorable ones are the first and the last one, and I am going to concentrate on them, with a certain interest in the last. Both are long scenes deprived of words. The language is missing. In the first one, the encounter with the monolith marks, as the mirror stage, a change in the apes’ behaviour, a moment which marks an evolution from an arbitrary society to a hierarchized one in which the ones who hold more knowledge, also hold the power, and therefore can rule over the others.

In what concerns the last apparition, the monolith seems to force itself in the symbolic structure. The visual contrast between the white room and the black entity enforces the differences in the nature of the two. Bowman, the human subject is “trapped” in the room, he cannot escape the influence of the monolith. His behaviour does not change, but he involves in a silent dialogue with the monolith, a dialogue which is beyond words, which has no use or need for language. It is so powerful that defies language, and with it defies the worldly order and structure. The dialogue between the monolith and the character is out of reach for the spectator, but, nevertheless, the monolith’s power, the gaze, transcends the screen and proposes a different dialogue to every eyes which are set on it, because one cannot avoid the gaze. This scene is, at least for me, utterly uncomfortable, puzzling, and it has a sense of bizarre, of uncanny which lingers long after the film is over and which I cannot exactly put in words. It is not an easy scene to watch, it almost banishes the viewer but it attracts him with the same force.

 Maybe this is why there are so many controversies around the meaning of the black block and its role in the science-fiction film. Maybe the final encounter with the monolith is not meant to be deciphered like one would crack down a code, like it would be a conglomeration of symbols which read in the correct order and by the right pattern reflect the great truth. Maybe it is supposed to be felt, and it is itself an encounter with the great truth, with the big Other, an encounter with no need for words, or symbols, or meanings. Maybe it is so puzzling because of our need for structure, for meaning and because of our incapacity to accept the existence of non-sense and only of senses. It might just be a moment of freedom for the character and for the spectators.

[1]Sassatelli, R. (2011) ‘Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture’.

Theory, Culture & Society [online] 28(5), 123-143 available from <http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/5/123.full.pdf+html> [21 November 2016]

[2] McGowan, T (2007) ‘Introduction: From the Imaginary Look to the Real Gaze’. Real Gaze, [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016].

[3] http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Independent-Film-Road-Movies/Psychoanalysis-CINEMA-AND-THE-MIRROR.html

[4]  McGowan, T.

[5] Felluga, D. (2011) ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. available from <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html> [October 27, 2016]

[6] McGowan, T

[7] McGowan, T. ‘The Coldness of Kubrick’. Real Gaze. 43-49

[8] Ibidem.


Felluga, D. (2011) ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. available from <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html> [October 27, 2016]

Gallop, J. (1985) Reading Lacan, Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London

Lacan, J. (1998) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Vintage. London

McGowan, T (2007) Real Gaze [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016]

Poole, R. (2001) ‘2001: A space odyssey’, History Today. 51(1), 39-45. available from: <http://search.proquest.com/docview/202814924/fulltextPDF/CEDD3629E57A4C92PQ/1?accountid=10286 > [20 November 2016]

Restuccia, FL (2003) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’S LACANIAN ENCORE: THE END OF THE AFFAIR’, Religion & The Arts. 7 (4), 369-387, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost. available from:<http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e13a2101-0f29-4df3-b272-d6b33325beff%40sessionmgr4010&vid=1&hid=4114> [15 November 2016].

Sassatelli, R. (2011) ‘Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture’.

Theory, Culture & Society [online] 28(5), 123-143 available from <http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/5/123.full.pdf+html> [21 November 2016]



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