Dates: 1901-1981

Nationality: French

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan (April 13, 1901 – September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary theory. He gave yearly seminars, in Paris, from 1953 to 1981, mostly influencing France’s intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially the post-structuralist philosophers. His interdisciplinary work is Freudian, featuring the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego; identification; and language as subjective perception, and thus he figures in critical theory, literary studies, twentieth-century French philosophy, and clinical psychoanalysis.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jacques Lacan’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 December 2010, 04:59 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jacques_Lacan&oldid=402090618>

Jacques Lacan complicated his position on the Gaze as he developed his theories. At first, gazing was important in his theories in relation to the mirror stage, where the subject appears to achieve a sense of mastery by seeing himself as ideal ego. By viewing himself in the mirror, the subject at the mirror stage begins his entrance into culture and language by establishing his own subjectivity through the fantasy image inside the mirror, an image that the subject can aspire towards throughout his life (a stable coherent version of the self that does not correspond to the chaotic drives of our actual material bodies). Once the subject enters the symbolic order, that narcissistic ideal image is maintained in the imaginary order. As explained in the Lacan module on the structure of the psyche, that fantasy image of oneself can be filled in by others who we may want to emulate in our adult lives (role models, love objects, et cetera), anyone that we set up as a mirror for ourselves in what is, ultimately, a narcissistic relationship.

In his later essays, Lacan complicates this understanding of the narcissistic view in the mirror by distinguishing between the eye’s look and the Gaze. 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 the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order. Lacan’s favorite example for the Gaze is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. When you look at the painting, it at first gives you a sense that you are in control of your look; however, you then notice a blot at the bottom of the canvas, which you can only make out if you look at the painting from the side at an angle, from which point you begin to see that the blot is, in fact, a skull staring back at you. By having the object of our eye’s look look back at us, we are reminded of our own lack, of the fact that the symbolic order is separated only by a fragile border from the materiality of the Real. The symbols of power and desire in Holbein’s painting (wealth, art, science, ambition) are thus completely undercut. As Lacan puts it, the magical floating object “reflects our own nothingness, in the figure of the death’s head” (Lacan, Four Fundamental 92).

Lacan then argues in “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a” that there is an intimate relationship between the objet petit a (which coordinates our desire) and the Gaze (which threatens to undo all desire through the eruption of the Real). As I stated in the previous module, “at the heart of desire is a misregognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire.” However, because the objet petit a (the object of our desire) is ultimately nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections, to come too close to it threatens to give us the experience precisely of the Lacanian Gaze, the realization that behind our desire is nothing but our lack: the materiality of the Real staring back at us. That lack at the heart of desire at once allows desire to persist and threatens continually to run us aground upon the underlying rock of the Real.

This concept has been particularly influential on a group of feminist film theorists who explore, on the one hand, how female objects of desire in traditional Hollywood film are reduced to passive screens for the projection of male fantasies, and, on the other hand, how the male desire for the mastery of the look is, in fact, continually undercut by a certain castration at the heart of cinema: the blank space between the frames that, only in its elision, can create the illusion of cinematic “reality.” That blank space between the frames is analogous to the ever-threatening Real over which we project our narcissistic fantasy of “reality.”


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