Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 1:

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an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural
sound, text and image

Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552

Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 1:

‘A New Kind of Mirror’

Paula Murphy

Your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. That
spot is bewitched. Only theory can break the spell.[1]

Theodor Adorno


Film theory as we know it today did not come into existence until the
late 1960’s, and since then has been dominated by psychoanalytic
ideas. This article seeks to specifically investigate the influence of

psychoanalysis on film theory. Its development will be
traced in two articles through classic film theory, the role of Karl
Marx and Louis Althusser, the contributions of semiotics, the debates
surrounding apparatus theory and the gaze, and finally the i
nput of
feminism. While this type of broad overview has been attempted in
many general introductions to film theory, it is hoped here to provide
a rough sketch of its formative stages of development, while filling in
the detail on a number of significant
issues that highlight Lacan’s

Classic Film Theory

It was not until after the First World War that it became possible to
identify two particular groups within film criticism. Spearheading
the first of these groups was the figure of Sergei E
isenstein, whose
making and theoretical essays in the 1920’s established a
conception of the role of the cinema as a primarily aesthetic one.
According to Eisenstein, a film’s aesthetic value depended on its
ability to transform reality and in his fi
lms this usually took the form
of montage.[2] In opposition to Eisenstein were the impressionists
and surrealists. They also believed the main function of the cinema
to be aesthetic, but thought that the camera itself was enough to
render ordinary object
s sublime. Their emphasis on cinema as a
visual medium meant that they regarded narrative in many cases as
an obstacle that had to be overcome. This, coupled with their
emphasis on fragmentation, meant that the impressionist / surrealist
tradition was un
suited to the rapidly expanding business of
commercial cinema.

Eisenstein and his followers gradually overshadowed other
theoretical groups to the extent that it was not until after the Second
World War, in the 50’s, that any radical development within f
theory took place. This development was primarily due to the
influence of André Bazin and his two essays, ‘The Evolution of the
Language of Cinema’ and ‘The Virtues and Limitations of Montage’,
which critiqued the two most prestigious schools of thoug
ht in film at
the time: Eisenstein’s Soviet school of montage and German
expressionism (Ray 2001, 7). Bazin overturned existing conceptions
of film by claiming that cinema’s true purpose was the objective
representation of reality. The expressionists, su
rrealists and the
Soviet school all evinced a belief in the manipulation of reality:
Eisenstein through abstract montage and mise
scene, and the
impressionists and surrealists through their elevation of the image
and disregard for other aspects of cinem
atography. Bazin argued
that cinema offered the chance of completely objective
representation for the first time in history. His position has come
under severe criticism from post
structuralists, for whom reality is
always a subjective experience.[3] Ho
wever, it is interesting to note
that contemporary television would seem to have come full circle in a
return to Bazin’s conception of film: reality TV is the ultimate
symptom of a desire for totally objective, unmediated presentation of
everyday life.

Question Marx

The influence of Bazin’s theories was short
lived and the political
upheaval that occurred in France in 1968 was the catalyst for a
complete change of direction in film studies. Bazin’s style of criticism
based around the notion of the aut
eur and the aesthetic function of
cinema soon became outdated as film studies became indisputably
political: ‘[t]here was no place outside or above politics; all texts,
whatever their claims to neutrality, had their ideological slant’
(Lapsley and Westlake

1988, 1). Film makers and film critics alike
were forced to consider the relationship between ideology and
power and the position of cinema within that dualism. This new
centered, theoretically
driven film criticism was given a
forum in two
highly influential French journals, Cahiers du Cinéma
and Cinéthique, along with their British counterpart Screen. The
editorial by Jean
Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni in the October 1969
issue of Cahiers illustrates the radical new direction that film st
had taken. In a marked reaction against the subjective, speculative
analyses of classical film theory, Comolli and Narboni stress the
scientific basis of their critique.[4] In addition to scientific
methodology, they also emphasise the political na
ture of their aims
which are heavily influenced by Marxism. They see film as a product
that becomes transformed into a commodity which ‘is also an
ideological product of the system, which in France means capitalism’
(Comolli and Narboni 1969, 45). Acknow
ledging their own
imprisonment within capitalist ideology, post
revolution film studies
envisaged that theory would provide the key to unlock their chains.
It was through theory that operations of ideological control in cinema
could be recognised, and thr
ough theory that resistance could be
asserted. The post
revolution critics saw the lack of theory in
classical film studies as one of the primary reasons for its impotence:

the classic theory of cinema that the camera is an impartial
instrument which gra
sps, or rather is impregnated by, the world in
its ‘concrete reality’ is an eminently reactionary one. What the
camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized,
out world of the dominant ideology. Cinema is one of the
through which the world communicates itself to itself.
They constitute its ideology for they reproduce the world as it is
experienced when filtered through its ideology’. (Conolli and Narboni
1969, 46)

It was the philosophy of Louis Althusser that provid
ed the political
conceptual system for post
revolution film theory. One of the driving
forces behind Althusser’s break with traditional Marxism around
1945 was the desire to establish a scientific status for his theory in
order to bestow upon it a degree
of autonomy. This move was to
have a direct impact on film studies as the first paragraph of Comolli
and Narboni’s editorial elucidates:

Scientific criticism has an obligation to define its fields and methods.
This implies awareness of its own historica
l and social situation, a
rigorous analysis of the proposed field of study, the conditions which
make the work necessary and those which make it possible, and the
special function it intends to fill. It is essential that we at Cahiers du
Cinema should now

undertake just such a global analysis of our
positions and aims. (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 43)

It was perhaps this desire for scientific fortification that attracted
Althusser to the theories of Lacan. While psychoanalysis had an
enormous direct influe
nce on film studies, it also influenced it
indirectly through the Marxist theory of Althusser. In order to re
conceptualise the simplistic base/superstructure model of society
espoused by Marx, Althusser borrowed the psychoanalytic term
’ in order to articulate the complex web of
conflicting elements, which combine to generate a historical
movement in society. In psychoanalysis, this term is used to describe
how a mental phenomenon like a symptom can be traced back to
several conflicting

and often incompatible desires. J. Laplanche and J.
B. Pontalais define it as ‘[t]he fact that formations of the unconscious
(symptoms, dreams, etc.) can be attributed to a plurality of
determining factors…[t]he formation is related to a multiplicity of
unconscious elements which may be organized in different
meaningful sequences, each having its own specific coherence at a
particular level of interpretation’ (Laplanche and Pontalais 1988,

Althusser’s concept of structural causality is also redole
nt of
Lacanian psychoanalysis. The term refers to the way in which ‘[m]en
are no longer agents actively shaping history, either as individuals or
classes, but rather are supports of the process within the structure’
(Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 6). Lacan
also emphasizes the primacy
of societal codes (in the form of the symbolic order) in the shaping of
subjectivity. The way in which the subject is inculcated into the
social order is described by Althusser as interpellation: a process
explicated in all its

complexity by Lacan in the Oedipus and castration
complexes, the mirror stage and the acquisition of language.
According to Althusser, interpellation takes place through ideological
state apparatuses (ISA’s): family, religion, education, media, etc. In
Lacanian terms, these social and familial structures are saturated
with symbolic law. Although both Cahiers du Cinema and Cinéthique
used the philosophy of Althusser as the basis for their critique of
ideology, they did so in different ways. For Cinéthiqu
e all films were
hopeless victims of the ideology of the ruling class and had to be
rejected in their entirety, whereas Cahiers du Cinema divided film
into seven different categories, only one of which it wholly
condemned, although this was the largest cat
egory: ‘films which are
imbued through and through with the dominant ideology in pure and
unadulterated form, and give no indication that their makers were
even aware of the fact’ (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 46). This
emphasis on the ideological nature of
films and of signification in
general owes an obvious debt to the philosophy of Lacan. But
although there are several points of connection between the two
theorists, the Althusserian and Lacanian subject are nonetheless two
distinct and often opposing ent
ities. For Althusser, interpellation
fixes the subject into a position of permanent blindness to the
ideological mechanisms of his/her society. The Lacanian subject is
ceaselessly developing and changing through language, and although
constituted by the
symbolic order is ‘the producer as well as the
product of meaning’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 53). This idea is
explored more fully in the following section in relation to the graph
of desire.

Cinematic Semiotics

Robert Lapsley and Micheal

Westlake isolate two aspects of Lacanian
theory, which were to prove crucial to film studies. The first is
Lacan’s reversal of the Cartesian notion of subjectivity. Rather than
the subject creating and naming the world, Lacan states that is in fact
uage itself, which creates the world, ‘the concept…engenders the
thing’ (Lacan 1989, 72). This idea has many implications for filmic
criticism, as speech can thus be conceived of as already saturated
with the predominant ideology, making it difficult or e
ven impossible
to utilise speech to criticize ideological norms. In fact, Lacan even
goes so far as to say that language can never fully articulate what the
subject wishes to say: the unsignifiable order of the real is evidence
of this.

The second of La
can’s theories that proved indispensable for film
studies is his re
reading of Ferdinand de Saussure. Lacan reverses
Saussure’s formula for the sign, placing language above reality (S/s).
He states that, ‘[f]or the human being the word or the concept is
nothing other than the word in its materiality. It is the thing itself. It
is not just a shadow, a breath, a virtual illusion of the thing, it is the
thing itself’ (Lacan 1987, 178, my italics). Language murders the
thing and takes its place. In this m
odel of the sign, there is an endless
sliding of signifiers over signifieds, which is temporarily halted by the
point de caption. The graph of desire (Lacan 1989, 335) articulates
succinctly the complexities inherent in signification. The

or represents the signifying chain, and intersects with the vector
S at two points. The first point of intersection denotes the
constitution of the signifier from

a synchronic and enumerable
collection of elements in which each is sustai
ned only by the
principle of its opposition to each of the others’ (Lacan 1989, 336). In
short, this point represents the signifier, which attains its status
through its difference from other terms in the system of language.
The second point of intersection denotes the
moment of punctuation,
in which the signifier at the first point of intersection attains its full
meaning retroactively. The two points of intersection are not
symmetrical, nor are they intended to be. The first is ‘a locus (a place
rather than a space)
and the second is ‘a moment (a rhythm rather
than a duration) (Lacan 1989, 336). The elementary cell of the graph
cited here is simplistic, but serves to illustrate the relationship
between subject and meaning.[5]

Meaning is produced après
coup by the s
ubject through the
retroactive nature of punctuation (the second point of intersection)
in the subject’s enunciation. However, the subject is also produced
by signification, as the meaning of the signifier at the first point of
signification is a differen
tial meaning, not an inherent meaning. This
means that the subject must choose from a selection of signifiers that
are available to him/her, which themselves shape and define the
signified. Collectively, these signifieds construct the world in which
subject exists, and so construct subjectivity itself. For Lacan,
there is an unending flux between the subject and signification, and
this idea occurs in film studies in several different ways.

Christian Metz defends the analysis of cinema from a linguis
tic or
semiotic point of view because although it is not a langue in the
Saussurian sense of the word, it is certainly a language. Metz argues
that the cinema does not constitute a langue for three reasons:
because there is no intercommunication; because
it is duplication of
reality rather than the unmotivated, arbitrary relationship between
signifier and signified and finally because it lacks ‘the double
articulation that…is the hallmark of natural language’ (Lapsley and
Westlake 1988, 39). Natural langu
age can be described as having a
double articulation because it is comprised of both words
(morphemes) and smaller units, phonemes, which signify nothing in
themselves, but when combined produce morphemes. While the
camera shot could in theory be likened
to the phoneme, there are
numerous difficulties with this equation. There are an infinite
number of shots to select from, but there are a finite number of
words. Moreover, the meaning of the shot is not defined by its
paradigmatic dimension, i.e. by the
other shots which could have
been selected, whereas the meaning of words is defined
paradigmatically. Because of these difficulties in analyzing cinema
through its paradigmatic relationships, Metz instead embarked upon
an analysis of the syntagmatic relat
ionships in cinema: his ‘grande
syntagmatique’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 40).

Metz divides the narrative syntax of the cinema into eight parts,
ranging from the smallest segment, the autonomous shot to the
largest segment, the sequence. While Metz’s a
nalysis set up a
detailed schema for understanding a film’s construction, it was
nonetheless open to criticism. Segments from films could not be
categorized as neatly as Metz imagined and he was also criticized for
being so formulaic that there was little

room for practical
interpretation of the workings of meaning and ideology within
cinema. Metz’s grande syntagmatique did elicit several progressive
critical responses however. Film director Pier Paolo Pasolini argued
against Metz’s proposition that ther
e was nothing in the cinema to
correspond to phonemes, which would align it to language’s dual
articulation. Pasolini names the smaller units of cinema ‘cinemes’,
which represent reality, or objects from reality. Through a process of
selection and combin
ation cinemes were formed into shots,
analogous to language’s morphemes. Umberto Eco criticized
Pasolini’s naivety in supposing that the cinema could articulate an
unmediated reality. Rather, Eco argues that reality is represented in
the cinema through a

system of cultural codes which are intimately
connected to ideology. He states also that cinemes could not be
equivalent to phonemes, since phonemes only possess meaning in
combination, whereas cinemes possess meaning in isolation. Against
Metz’s uni
ticulation and Pasolini’s double
articulation, Eco
contends that the cinema has a triple articulation made up of semes,
smaller iconic signs which only attain meaning in relation to semes,
and finally the ‘conditions of perception’ (Lapsley and Westlake
88, 45), which takes into account the audience’s perception of
light, shade, textures, colours, etc. which contribute to their
understanding of the filmic text. Later on, Eco revised this model
slightly, suggesting that signs are better thought of as ‘sig
correlating a unit of expression with a unit of content in a temporary
encoding’ (Lapsley and Westlake 1988, 46, my italics), recognizing
that signs are defined by their context and that their meaning cannot
be fixed.[6]

The relatio
nship between the subject and the narrative text in
the cinema was explored by many film critics and much of the
remaining sections are concerned with an analysis of this
relationship from various critical viewpoints. One such critic is Colin
McCabe, who
was on the editorial board for the revolutionary British
film journal Screen in the 1970’s and was also a regular contributor.
Screen took on board the challenge of analyzing the relationship
between ideology, subjectivity and signification, and did so th
psychoanalysis, semiotics and Althusserian Marxism. It is in the
structuralist mode that McCabe theorizes the production of meaning
in film in the article that will be discussed here.[7]

The model for McCabe’s analysis of film is a literary one.
Since the
dominant mode of film was (and still is) realism, McCabe finds his
model in the classic realist text, the nineteenth century novel, which
he defines as ‘one in which there is a hierarchy amongst the
discourses which compose the text and this hier
archy is defined in
terms of an empirical notion of truth’ (McCabe 1974, 54). The
Marxist influence of McCabe’s analysis is obvious. Extrapolating the
hierarchical divisions within the realist novel allows him to uncover
the mechanisms of ideology within

the text. McCabe divides the
realist novel into narrative prose and object language. Narrative
prose is characterised by the omniscient narrator, informing,
commenting and providing judgement on the object language, the
language of the characters, repre
sented in inverted commas. McCabe
states that the narrative prose is the first order of hierarchy in the
novel. It ‘functions as a metalanguage that can state all the truths in
the object language’ (McCabe 1974, 54). The narrative prose
attempts to conc
eal its status as metalanguage: since its words are
not spoken, it is almost as if they are not there. Its invisibility hides
its function as purveyor of the dominant ideology. In film, McCabe
believes that the camera is analogous to the metalanguage of
classic realist novel: ‘[t]he camera shows us what happens

it tells
the truth against which we can measure the discourses’ (McCabe
1974, 56).

McCabe defines two aspects of the classic realist text in both novel
and film. He states that ‘[t]he clas
sic realist text cannot deal with the
real as contradictory. In a reciprocal movement the classic realist
text ensures the position of the subject in a relation of dominant
specularity’ (McCabe 1974, 58). The ‘real’ here does not signify the
Lacanian rea
l. It refers rather to the real events which are related in
the subjective discourse of the cinema and conversely in the object
language or dialogue of the realist novel. He is stating therefore that
realist narrative cannot accommodate a tension between

metalanguage and object discourse. The nature of the genre means
that the object discourse must subscribe to the commentary of the
metalanguage, and therefore to the status of metalanguage as
ideologically motivated. However, while tension is impossible

between these two hierarchical levels within the film or the novel, it
is possible for either to resist the dominant ideology of society. So
while the two elements are necessarily harmonious within the
narrative of filmic text, in unison they are capable

of critique:

the classic realist text (a heavily ‘closed’ discourse) cannot deal with
the real in its contradictions…it fixes the subject in a point of view
from which everything becomes obvious. There is, however, a level
of contradiction into which t
he classic realist text can enter. This is
the contradiction between the dominant discourse of the text and the
dominant ideological discourses of the time. (McCabe 1974, 62)

While McCabe’s analysis provides a useful account of the ‘invisible’
s of the camera as commentator and interpreter of the
action, it fails to provide a theoretical analysis of how the spectator
receives this ideological cinematic code and the exact nature of the
relationship between spectator and film. This task required
analysis of the subject’s relationship with other subjects, images,
language and culture, and film critics found a theoretical paradigm
that explicated all of these factors in psychoanalysis. The emphasis
on the occasion of consumption (the dialectic b
etween subject and
film in the cinema, when he/she is engaged in the act of perception)
is one of the most important differentiating factors between film
theory and literary criticism. This is the central focus of the branch
of film studies known as appar
atus theory, which relies most heavily
on philosophy of Lacan.

Apparatus Theory

Metz’s foundational essay ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ is an exemplary
account of the film/spectator relationship, providing what was to
become a model for the use of psychoa
nalytic theory in film criticism.
In the scientific manner that characterized post
revolution film
studies, Metz sets out to define exactly what the cinema is and how it
differs from the other arts. He proposes that the main distinguishing
factor is that

the cinema is a signifier whose presence is absence, i.e.
the act of perception takes place in real time, but the spectator is
viewing an object which is pre
recorded and thus already absent: it is
the object’s ‘replica in a new kind of mirror’ (Metz 2000
, 410). He
states that, ‘[m]ore than the other arts…the cinema involves us in the
imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately
over into its own absence, which is none the less the only signifier
present’ (Metz 2000, 410). Metz’s d
efinition of the cinema is an
accurate one, although he over
emphasises the difference between
film and other arts. All of the arts involve an element of presence in
absence: reading a book or listening to a piece of music are activities
where the action
is not directly present. Even the act of watching a
play where the actors are present on stage necessarily involves the
agreed absence of reality (suspension of disbelief), which is a
fundamental convention of drama.

Watching a film necessarily

involves for Metz an instance of
identification, since without identification meaning cannot be
generated for the subject. The spectator ‘continues to depend in the
cinema on that permanent play of identification without which there
would be no social li
fe’ (Metz 2000, 411). The question of what
exactly the spectator identifies with proves to be more difficult. The
obvious answer is a character in the film, but Metz points out that not
all films contain characters. Even in instances where characters ar
present, there cannot be total identification: the screen is a mirror
but not in a literal sense. Metz concludes that the spectator must
identify with the cinematic apparatus itself, and its re
creation of the
act of looking: ‘the spectator identifies w
ith himself, with himself as
pure act of perception…as condition of possibility of the perceived
and hence as a kind of transcendental subject, anterior to every there
is’ (Metz 2000, 413).

Identification is with the projector, the camera and the screen of the
cinematic apparatus. The projector duplicates the act of perception
by originating from the back of the subject’s head and presenting a
visual image in front of the subject. The vario
us shots of the camera
are akin to the movement of the head. As vision is both projective
and introjective, the subject projects his/her gaze and
simultaneously introjects the information received from the gaze.
The cinema replicates this experience, wit
h the screen functioning as
the recording surface for what has been introjected. Opening the
eyes to view the film, ‘I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen;
in both these figures together, I am the camera, pointed yet
recording’ (Metz 2000, 415

Identification takes place in the imaginary order. The imaginary is
governed by the symbolic, and the cinema is no exception to this rule.
Any theorization of the imaginary in cinema must pre
suppose the
symbolic since the cinema is a system of signi
fiers which signify an
absent signified. Metz does not explicitly acknowledge that the
cinematic experience replicates the experience of the child in the
mirror: if the screen takes the place of the childhood mirror, then
both can be said to create a vers
ion of reality that is based upon an
illusion. However, Metz does identify the cinema as characteristically
imaginary, since what is depicted is already a reflection of reality. He
focuses on the imaginary at the expense of the symbolic and this
issue ha
s been taken up by several feminist critics who will be
discussed in part two of this article. This emphasis on the imaginary
generated a large amount of theoretical analysis. Like the childhood
mirror, the imaginary completeness that the screen represen
merely serves to disguise an inherent lack. The means by which this
imaginary completeness is created is known as suture.

Stephen Heath’s ground
breaking work, Narrative Space,
provides an informed description of suture, foregrounded by a
etailed discussion of filmic narrative space in general. Pivotal to
Heath’s analysis is the notion of ‘central projection’ and he outlines
the development of this idea from fifteenth century Italian painting to
early photography. It is defined as ‘the ar
t of depicting three
dimensional objects upon a plane surface in such a manner that the
picture may affect the eye of an observer in the same way as the
natural objects themselves’ (Heath 1993, 69). Central projection,
which we now regard as ‘natural’, do
minates modern cinema. For
the illusion of central projection to be fully accurate, it is essential for
the eye of the spectator to be positioned in the central point of
perspective. Anamorphosis is the term that is used to describe what
happens when a p
ainter or a film maker plays with central
projection. This is the distorted sensation experienced when an
image draws the eye to one side. Heath cites Holbein’s ‘The
Ambassadors’ as an example of anamorphosis: ‘playing between
‘appearance’ and ‘reality’,

it situates the centre of the projection of
the painting…obliquely to the side, the sense of the painting…only
falling into place (exactly) once the position has been found’ (Heath
1993, 69). Although unacknowledged by Heath, the emphasis on the
ce of subject position in maintaining the illusion of reality
contains strong echoes of Lacan’s optical experiment, in which the
position of the subject is crucial in order to maintain the delicate
balance between the three orders[8]. Watching a film is a
lso based
on an optical illusion in which images on a flat screen appear three
dimensional and realistic. The identifications engendered by film
narrative centered around the imaginary order are similarly based
upon méconnaisance.

Heath divide
s filmic space into space in frame and space out of
frame. The space in frame is ‘narrative space’. ‘It is narrative
significance that at any moment sets the space of the frame to be
followed and ‘read’’ (Heath 1993, 69). This narrative space is
erized and delimited by various conventions. For example,
most films contain a master
shot in the opening sequence: a shot that
shows the whole setting in order to allow the spectator to integrate
themselves into the spatial layout of the film. The conve
ntions of the
180 and 30
degree rules also regulate the narrative space of the
cinema. The 180 degree rule means that the camera rarely goes
beyond the 180 degree line of the screen, in front of which the
spectator would be placed within the narrative spa
ce of the film. In
order to avoid a jump in narrative space, which would interrupt the
illusion of total visual access to the narrative space of the film, the 30
degree rule is common practice, which means that the camera should
not attempt a sudden jump
of more than 30 degrees. All of these
conventions function to maintain the illusion of reality that the
cinema creates. The illusion or misrecognition that is inherent in the
cinematic experience centers around the complex issue of suture.


term originates with Lacan, who uses it only once in his
seminar of 1965, and was later transformed into a concept by
Alain Miller in his article for Les Cahiers pour l’analyse, later
printed in Screen as ‘Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Sign
In this article, Miller theorizes the notion of suture as the relationship
between the subject and the signifying chain. Roudinesco illuminates
the objections that Lacan had to this article, which are quite
significant in light of later usages of

the term. Unhappy with Miller’s
article, he alludes to it in ‘Science and Truth’, taking a completely
opposing position. Rather than seeing suture as the closure of the
relationship between the subject and the chain, Lacan favours its
openness, and argu
es that ‘science fails to suture or produce a
complete formalization of the subject’ (Roudinesco 1997, 327).
Summarising the polarity and subsequent impact of the opposing
positions of Miller and Lacan, Roudinesco states that,

although Miller’s contribut
ion was useful to Lacan, its tenor was
quite opposite to his own. Lacan’s logic of the subject was based on
opening, ambiguity, ambivalence, and the idea of an impossible
mastery; Miller’s interpretation of that logic was the harbinger of all
the dogmas t
hat were to come. (Roudinesco 1997, 327)

In the 1960’s, Jean Pierre Oudart contributed a description of the
operations of suture in cinema to Cahiers. He argues that the cinema
screen initially produces jouissance in the subject, who is absorbed in
the i
maginary misrecognition of images, similar to the experience of
the mirror stage. As always however, the symbolic encroaches upon
the imaginary when the spectator becomes aware of the frame. This
awareness consequently produces an anxiety in the subject
who is
unsure whose point of view is being depicted, threatening to shatter
the cinematic illusion. This threat is forestalled by the traditional
shot/reverse shot mechanism, whereby a second shot allows the first
to be shown as a character’s field of vis
ion. This maintains the
illusion of completeness and allows the spectator to remain in
his/her position as voyeur. Suture became an important concept in
film studies in both Britain and France until it underwent another
transformation with the advent of
deconstruction, where it became ‘a
vague notion rather than a concept, as synonymous with ‘closure’:
‘suture’ signaled that the gap, the opening, of a structure was
obliterated, enabling the structure to (mis)perceive itself as a self
enclosed totality of
representation’ (Zizek 2001, 31). Heath’s
narrative space is thus dependent upon the action of suture since the
cinema, as much as the childhood mirror, poses for the spectator ‘an
absence, a lack, which is ceaselessly recaptured for…the film, the

binding the spectator as subject in the realization of the
film’s space’ (Heath 1993, 88).

From its very beginning then, throughout its influence by Marxism
and semiotics, film theory has relied on psychoanalytic theory to
provide a philosophical, pseud
scientific and sociological basis for
the conceptualization of the spectator. However, the psychoanalytic
subject espoused by film studies is not without its critics. Many have
accused the discipline of diluting Lacanian theory to serve their own
ses, reducing the complexities of the Lacanian subject to a
deceiving simplicity. In the second part of this article, the writings of
Joan Copjec and Slavoj Zizek on the issue of the gaze will be analysed.
These critics, along with other discussed in par
t two, show that far
from the cinematic screen being a mirror akin to the mirror of
childhood described in Lacan’s mirror stage, that the mirror is in fact
a screen, and that the spectator is not the one who looks, but rather is
being looked at.


Adorno, Theodor, 1980. ‘Letter to Walter Benjamin’ in Aesthetics and
Politics. ed. by Frederic Jameson. London: Verso.

Comolli, Jean
Louis and Jean Narboni, [1969]. ‘Cinema/Ideology
Criticism (1)’ in Contemporary Film Theory, ed. Anthony Eastho
New York: Longman, 1993. [pp. 43

Heath, Stephen, 1993, ‘From Narrative Space’ in Contemporary Film
Theory. ed. by Anthony Easthope. New York: Longman. [pp. 68

Lacan, Jacques, 1989. Ecrits
: a Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan.
London: Routledge.

Lacan, Jacques, (1953
4), Le Séminaire. Livre 1. Les écrits techniques
de Freud, 1953
4, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, Paris: Seuil, 1975 [The
Seminar, Book 1, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953
4, trans John
Forrester, with notes by John Forrester, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1987].

McCabe, Colin, [1974], ‘From Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some
Brechtian Theses’ in Contemporary Film Theory, edited by Anthony
Easthope. New York
: Longman, 1993. [pp. 53

Metz, Christian, 2000. ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ in Film and Theory:
An Anthology, ed. by Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell.
[pp. 403

Ray, Robert B., 2001. How Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries
in Cultural Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lapsley, Robert and Michael Westlake, 1988. Film Theory: An
Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Roudinesco, Elisabeth, (1994), Jacques Lacan: Esquisse d’une vie,
re d’un système de pensée. Librairie Arthème Fayard. [Jacques
Lacan. Trans. Barbara Gray. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997].

Zizek, Slavoj, 2001. The Fright of Real Tears: Krystof Kieślowski
between Theory and Post Theory. London: BFI Publishing.


[1] ‘Letter to Walter Benjamin’ in Aesthetics and Politics, edited by
Frederic Jameson, p. 129.

[2] Eisenstein’s stance on this issue was foregrounded by the earlier
pictorialism movement, which sought to disguise the photographic
image by disguisi
ng it as art (Ray 2001, 3).

[3] Ray states that Bazin’s philosophy is an example of what Derrida
names ‘unmediated presence’ (Ray 2001, 8).

[4] While the aesthetic bias of Eisenstein’s criticism was rejected, his
theoretical writings were admired. Along

with his Russian
contemporaries, he was perceived as contributing to the theoretical
matrix of film studies (Comolli and Narboni 1969, 50).

[5] Lacan develops this graph in four stages in ‘The Subversion of the
Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the

Freudian Unconscious’
(Lacan 1989, 323

[6] This view also bears the influence of post
structuralists like Lacan
and Derrida who insist upon the temporality of meaning in
signification. For Derrida, ‘il n’ya pas hors de contexte’: there is
outside the context.

[7] Colin McCabe’s analyses are not confined to structuralism. On the
contrary, he is a well
regarded film critic who is capable of analyzing
in many different modes. This particular article has been chosen as
an example of structur
alist criticism.

[8] See seminar 1.


international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural
sound, text and image

Volume 2, February 2005, ISSN 1552

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552

Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 2:

Reflections and Refutations

Paula Murphy


In part one of this article, the development of film theory was
outlined, and the influence of Lacan

made apparent. However, the
disciplines of psychoanalysis and film theory have not always as
compatible as they may appear. Part two will address the various
criticisms that have been leveled at film theory for its use and abuse
of Lacanian psychoanalys
is. These tensions function both to shed
light on various aspects of psychoanalysis, and also highlight possible
problematic areas. In the following sections, these debates are
addressed in relation to notion of the filmic gaze and the interjections
of f
eminist film theorists.

The Gaze

In her article, ‘The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the
Reception of Lacan’, Joan Copjec harshly criticizes what she sees as
film theory’s misinterpretation of Lacan, and her critique centers
around two figures w
ho are generally regarded as being in the ranks
of the founders of film theory, Michel Foucault and Jean Bachelard.
Copjec claims that film theory has performed what she terms a
‘Foucauldization’ of Lacan. For Foucault, psychoanalysis is like any
other d
iscourse: it functions as a means through which ‘the modern
subject is apprehended and apprehends itself, rather than…processes
of apprehension’ (Copjec 2000, 440). Moreover, the fallback position
of the screen as a mirror, espoused by eminent critics lik
e Baudry,
Comolli and Metz is regarded by Copjec as intrinsically flawed. This
traditional standpoint, as outlined in part one of this article, positions
the subject in a relation of recognition, and thus as master of the
image that he/she sees. This is
a drastic simplification of Lacan’s
theory, as the mirror stage experience is essentially a traumatic one
that disrupts the subject’s relationship to the world. It produces a
subject that is congenitally split or divided, and one that is in contrast
to th
e stable subject of film theory, who is master of the image.
Copjec claims that this difference between the Lacanian subject and
its re
interpretation in film theory rests on the issue of the
relationship between desire and the law. For Lacan, desire is
encouraged and prohibited by the law. Desire can only emerge
through a possibility offered by the law, because the symbolic
structures desire. Since desire demands to be realized, it can only be
prevented from doing so by an external force. So conve
rsely, the law
also functions to prohibit desire, as is evidenced by the Oedipus and
castration complexes, or Levi
Strauss’s incest prohibition. Foucault
however, conflates these two elements, perceiving desire ‘not only as
an effect, but also as a realiz
ation of the law’ (Copjec 2000, 443). The
subject of traditional film theory is therefore based more on
Foucault’s panoptic gaze than on the Lacanian gaze, causing Copjec to
state that, ‘[t]he relation between apparatus and gaze creates only
the mirage of

psychoanalysis. There is no psychoanalytic subject in
sight’ (Copjec 2000, 444).

Zizek also criticizes film theory’s misinterpretation of the
Lacanian gaze on the same grounds as Copjec and his theorizations
are a significant development of
the early theories of Metz and
others. Zizek agrees with Metz that before the spectator identifies
with characters from the diegesis, he/she first identifies with
himself/herself as pure gaze. He contends however, that ‘the viewer
is forced to face the d
esire at work in his/her seemingly neutral gaze’
(Zizek 1992, 223). In his later work, The Fright of Real Tears, Zizek
explains this idea more fully. Arguing for the antagonistic
relationship between the eye and the Gaze, he states that, ‘the Gaze is
the side of the object, it stands for the blind spot in the field of the
visible from which the picture itself photo
graphs the spectator’
(Zizek 2001, 34). In other words, ‘when I am looking at an object, the
object is already gazing at me’ (Zizek, 2000,

530). The function of
interface occurs when subjective and objective shots in the film fail to
produce a suturing effect. In the usual process of suture, the first
shot generates a feeling of anxiety in the spectator, which is
alleviated by the second s
hot which shows the first to be from the
point of view of a particular character. Thus the second shot
attempts to represent the absent subject S. Interface is the point at
which this representation fails. Zizek defines interface as ‘the
internal elemen
t that sustains the consistency of the ‘external reality’
itself, the artificial screen that confers the effect of reality on what we
see’ (Zizek 2001, 54). This internal element, which is necessary for
external reality to appear a consistent whole is the

object petit a.

Zizek’s argument echoes Lacan’s original objections to the use of
suture in film theory outlined in part one. On the surface, suture
closes the gap of representation, hiding the traces of its own
production. But in psychoanalysis, not
hing can be fully hidden, or
fully repressed. This leads Zizek to argue that there is no clear
opposition between subjective experience and objective reality:
rather there is ‘an excess on both sides’ (Zizek 2001, 59). To
illustrate this point, Zizek use
s the example of the empty master
signifier ‘Nation’. It is a signified that contains an ostensible fullness
and completeness of meaning, yet which also fails on the level of the
signifier, since it is incapable of definition. The master signifier, of
ich the phallus is an example, could perhaps be perceived as
threatening this endless instability of meaning, as it is an anchoring
point in the symbolic order. This is not the case however, because
the phallus is a signifier of its own impossibility. Zi
zek points out
that Lacan has likened the phallus to the square root of
1, a number
whose value cannot be calculated, but which nonetheless exists and
functions within the system of mathematics. Although Lacan has
often been criticized for his use of mat
hematical symbols, it must be
borne in mind that he does not purport to perform a mathematically
accurate algebra. He uses mathematics for his own purpose, which is
the illustration of his theories. This equation is aligned with the
phallus because it to
o represents an impossible fullness of meaning.
The signified is ‘sustained by the void…at the level of the signifier’
(Zizek 2001, 60). The square root of
1 represents a concept which is
theoretically possible but which fails at the level of the signif
because it cannot be calculated. It represents, as Fink suggests, ‘what
the subject is that is unthinkable about him’ (Fink 2004, 125): the
real, the overflow of signification into the void beyond language. In
the case of the phallus, this void is i
ts castrating dimension, and
means that its fullness of meaning is supplemented by its own
impossibility. It is the feminist branch of film theory that has
interrogated the phallic aspect of the Lacanian subject most

Feminist Film Theory

n feminist film theory, issues surrounding the phallus and sexuality
play a significant role, but to a much lesser extent than in
conventional psychoanalytic feminism. This is primarily due to the
fact that all theorizations of selfhood in film theory (no
t just feminist
ones) are part of its broader function, which is the dual interrogation
of self as spectator and self on screen. Like mainstream film theory,
feminist film theory too is marked by a focus on the occasion of
consumption: the act of watching

a film and the identifications that
this act engenders. As well as examining the psychical experience of
the spectator, feminist film theory also studies the representation of
women in filmic discourse. Since this activity is by its nature
confined to s
pecific films, it is the analysis of the spectator that
consequently forms the central topic for this section.

Feminist film theory began as part of the general social and political
feminist movement, but it is useful at the outset to set out the main
jections of feminists to film theory in particular. Most
theorizations of the relationship between spectator and film depicted
the gaze as male, evicting the female spectator from the possibility of
identification. As regards films themselves, it was fel
t that women
functioned primarily as objects of desire for the male gaze. Hence,
the basic problem occurs in feminist film theory: whether woman (as
spectator or character) can be conceptualised outside of the
dominant hegemony. This section will examine

the responses of
several feminist critics to these issues.

Anne Friedberg is a useful beginning point for the
interrogation of feminist film theory, as her essay ‘A Denial of
Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification’ outlines patriarc
identificatory processes and sets out to critique them. Friedberg
divides identification into three stages: pre
cinematic identification,
cinematic identification, and extra
cinematic identification.
According to Friedberg, cinematic identification i
s prefigured by the
unconscious identification processes that are cultivated in early
childhood. In her opening paragraph she states that in

Identification is a process which commands the subject to be
displaced by an other; it is a proce
dure which refuses and
recuperates the separation between self and other, and in this way
replicates the very structure of patriarchy. Identification demands
sameness, necessitates similarity, disallows difference. (Friedberg
1990, 36)

Here Friedberg ta
kes the vast, overarching concept of self and other
in Lacan and Freud’s work and reduces it to an example of the
mechanisms of patriarchy or female subordination. Yes,
identification does mirror the structure of patriarchy, but it would
seem apparent tha
t the blurring of boundaries between self and
other is an essential part of any identification, and is central to every
relationship: colonizers and colonized, lover and beloved, master and
slave. Friedberg displays the blinkered nature of her viewpoint b
failing to acknowledge the universality of the identificatory

cinematic identification as described by Freud and later by
Lacan, is problematic for feminists like Friedberg who practice a
feminism of difference, since identification is
built upon a denial of
difference from early childhood. For example, the child in the mirror
stage disavows the discrepancy between his image in the mirror as a
unified body, and his experiential chaotic reality. This characteristic
of identification is
repeated in cinematic identification. As one of the
first exponents of psychoanalytic identificatory processes in cinema,
it is Christian Metz who comes under criticism from Friedberg. In
opposition to Metz, Friedberg contends that the ego
ideal offered
the cinema is ‘not unified or whole, but a synecdochal signifier’
(Friedberg 1990, 41). The actor/actress is not represented in
his/her entirety. Rather, different parts of the body become part
object commodities: a voice, a face, a pair of legs, etc.

Secondly, she
points out the problems that occur when gendered identification is
considered. The woman is forced either into identifying with ‘the
woman who is punished by the narrative or treated as a scoptophilic
fetish OR…identifying with the man who

is controller of events’
(Friedberg 1990, 42). Friedberg launches her final attack on Metz by
claiming that secondary identification need not necessarily involve a
human form at all, emphasizing her argument that identification
processes are based upon a

denial of difference. Considering the
range of animal, alien and robot characters that it is possible to
identify with, Friedberg concludes that ‘any body offers an
opportunity for identificatory investment, a possible suit for the
ition of self’ (Friedberg 1990, 42).

This third point would seem to open Friedberg onto a path of
identification that is not founded on gender divides, but she chooses
to utilise it only to further emphasise the denial of difference that she
contends is
the mechanism of patriarchy. Friedberg argues that
cinematic identification serves to further entrench the
spectator in the pattern of recognition as other, and subsequent
misrecognition as self. The economic structures which support the
cinema enc
ourage consumers to buy film star merchandise or
products that are endorsed by film stars, enabling them to purchase
and therefore own or consume the star. In this way, Friedberg
argues that cinematic identification produces normative gender
figures, whic
h must be critiqued under patriarchy. Friedberg’s
account is useful in setting out the opposition that feminists have to
traditional theories of cinematic identification, but her analysis is
considerably hampered by her own political project, which makes
her unable to look beyond the gender divide.

Mary Ann Doane voices similar objections to apparatus theory.
Using the character of Gaby Doriot

as an example, she argues like
Friedberg that the cinema produces stereotyped representations of
women. Gaby Doriot as the eponymous La Signora di tutti of the
film’s title is a perfect example of how many on
screen female
characters are indeed ‘everybod
y’s Lady’. That the same may be said
about many stereotyped male characters does not enter Doane’s
argument. Instead she concentrates on illustrating the sexism of
apparatus theory. Unlike Friedberg however, Doane does propose a
solution to this feminis
t dilemma. Recognizing the often
historical application of psychoanalysis, Doane sees this as a way to
crack open the deterministic structure of apparatus theory, and allow
for ‘the possibility of change or transformation through attention to
e concreteness and specificity of the socio
historical situation’
(Doane 1990, 48). Doane reservedly suggests that ‘[p]sychoanalysis
is, in some sense, the construction of history, and history in its turn,
an act of remembering’ (Doane 1990, 59). It hard
ly seems necessary
to point out here that psychoanalysis is in every sense the
construction of history, from its clinical methodology to its own
historical development in Lacan’s reconstruction of Freud. Although
Doane sees history as related to a social
past that transcends the
subject, she believes that its co


is firmly
anchored to the individual. In this way she envisages feminism
escaping from the deadlock of apparatus theory. However, Doane
does not explicitly state exactly how t
his is to be achieved, remarking
rather vaguely that ‘[t]he task must be not that of remembering
women, remembering real women, immediately accessible

but of
producing remembering women; with memories and hence histories’
(Doane 1990, 60). Her concludin
g analysis of the feminist film The
Gold Diggers would suggest that remembering women are to be
produced on the screen by an alternative feminist cinematography.
This does not, however, solve the problem of representations of
women in mainstream cinema or

the gender bias in apparatus

The question may fruitfully be proffered as to why the
apparatus is supposed to be male in the first place. Any answer to
this question cannot fail to make reference to Laura Mulvey’s
foundational essay,

‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ originally
published in Screen, which was to become the main reference point
for much of the feminist film theory that was to follow. Mulvey
begins her article by stating that ‘the unconscious of patriarchal

has structured film form’ (Mulvey 2000, 483). This is a view
shared by many feminist film theorists. Cowie goes as far back as
Strauss to argue that ‘[k]inship is …part of a system which
produces woman as object of exchange’ (Cowie 2000, 60). Mulv
explains this state of affairs by way of psychoanalytic theory that in
her account allocates woman two main functions: symbolizing the
threat of castration by her absence of a penis, and bringing the child
into the symbolic. Doane cites this as the rea
son that the male
spectator is destined to be fetishistic: in his sexual indoctrination
there is a distance between his look (at the female genitals) and the
boy’s understanding of his look as sexual difference, which comes
about retrospectively with the a
dvent of the castration complex. For
this reason, Doane states that, ‘the male spectator is destined to be a
fetishist, balancing knowledge and belief’ (Doane 2000, 501). Mulvey
argues, as many feminist do, that it is woman’s lack, set down during
this f
ormative period of the infant’s life, which ensures the symbolic
presence of the phallus.

The phallus is certainly a symbolic presence, but is as pointed out in
the earlier discussion in this article on Zizek, an empty signifier. It is
necessary in orde
r to hold together the structure of sexual
development; it is a privileged term, which both sexes must relate to,
but it means little in itself. In fact, it is the pre
Oedipal castrations
that prove to be the most definitive in both male and female
tivity, castrations that are realized only retroactively, après
coup, when the child enters the symbolic. The castrations ‘produce a
subject who is structured by lack long before the “discovery” of
sexual difference’ (Silverman 1988, 16). Mulvey goes on
to say that
once woman has successfully ushered her child into the symbolic,
‘her meaning in the process is at an end, it does not last into the
world of law and language except as a memory of maternal plenitude’
(Mulvey 2000, 483). A statement of this so
rt not only steers her
down a path of inevitable despair, it is also blatantly untrue. Her
position is based upon the unspoken belief that the symbolic order is

Although this may have been true in the past, it is surely now an
outdated standp
oint in contemporary society where women
contribute to all aspects of society and culture.

The other main issue arising from this article that was to become
highly influential is Mulvey’s assertion that the cinema plays on both
the scopophilic instinct a
nd ego libido. Moreover,

[t]he image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze
of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of
representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of
the patriarchal order as it is

worked out in its favorite cinematic form

illusionistic narrative film. (Mulvey 2000, 493)

In Mulvey’s article, the cinema represents and exaggerates the very
worst aspects of society from a female point of view. Although the
premises that her argumen
t is based on are themselves dubious and
subjective, and sometimes grossly outdated, Mulvey further adds to
the negativity of her account by failing to offer any way forward.
Following the widespread critical interest that this article generated,
she did
however produce a follow up article where she addresses
some of these flaws.

Having been criticized for only dealing with the male gaze and
ignoring the female spectator, her second article sets out to examine
‘how the text and its attendant identificati
ons are affected by a
female character occupying the center of the narrative arena’
(Mulvey 2000a, 24). Mulvey quotes at length from Freud and the
famous passage in which he proclaims that there is only one libido,
which is masculine. Once again, she cri
ticizes psychoanalysis by
criticizing Freud. It is not difficult or even particularly illuminating to
point out that a Victorian psychoanalyst appears sexist a century
later, and Mulvey appears to deliberately ignore any advances made
by Lacan. In ‘Visua
l Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ she attacks
Freud for providing an explanation of female sexuality that is based
on anatomy, without recognizing that this is not the case for Lacan.

In light of her criticisms of Freud, it is ironic that Mulvey comes ful
circle to agree with him. In an attempt to answer the question of how
the female spectator identifies in cinema, she concludes that
Hollywood genre films, structured around masculine pleasure allow
woman to identify with active male sexuality: ‘that los
t aspect of her
sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine
neurosis’ (Mulvey 2000a, 26). This trans
sex identification is
examined in relation to King Vidor’s western, Duel in the Sun, which
dramatizes the situation of a woman caught b
etween two conflicting
desires: passive femininity and regressive masculinity, which are
offered to her by her two male counterparts in the film. One allows
her to be a tomboy in the ‘male’ world of rivalry and violence; the
other, a man of culture and le
arning shows her the ‘correct’ path to
becoming a lady. Mulvey argues that the position of the female
spectator is similar to that of Pearl in Duel in the Sun, as she
‘temporarily accepts “masculinisation” in memory of her “active”
phase’ (Mulvey 2000a, 3
5). Although she recognizes that this
position is not ideal, Mulvey nevertheless shows a certain amount of
solidarity with Freud, which proves to be the thread that unravels
her entire argument. In spite of her obvious objections to Freudian
is, her own theory of female cinematic identification is
constructed within its confines.

Theorist Constance Penley offers an account of the problems
with and possible solutions to apparatus theory for feminists that is
more influenced by Laca
n than Freud. Penley borrows the term
‘bachelor machine’ to describe the cinematic apparatus; an
appropriate metaphor in light of her stance that the cinematic
apparatus cannot properly accommodate or represent the woman.
In her article ‘Feminism, Film T
heory and the Bachelor Machines’,
Penley takes on several eminent film theorists, disputing their
theorizations of the cinematic apparatus. The first theorist she
discusses is Jean
Louis Baudry. Baudry believes the cinema to be the
most accurate represen
tation of the unconscious in history, claiming
that ‘all the other art forms…are simply rehearsals of a primordially
unconscious effort to recreate the scene of the unconscious, while
cinema is its most successful achievement’ (Penley 2000, 458). Both
dry and Metz describe the cinematic scene (the darkness, the
projection from behind) as a duplication of unconscious phenomena,
producing hallucinatory satisfaction in the case of the former, and
ideal subjective unity and visual mastery in the case of the

Penley criticizes both theorists however, for failing to acknowledge
the ‘economic, social, or political determinations of cinema’ (Penley
2000, 459). In short, their analyses overlook the position of the
cinema within the symbolic order. Th
is is the point at which Penley
returns to a specific attack on Metz, whom she criticizes for claiming
that the cinema is primarily imaginary, which subsequently becomes
the crux of her argument.

Metz’s justifications for this claim have already been out
lined, based
on the fact that the cinema experience centers around the scopic
drive and the cinema is presence in absence, but Penley argues that
Metz’s conception of the imaginary is over
simplified, pointing out
that in Lacan’s later work he emphasizes t
hat ‘the imaginary is
always permeated by the desire of the Other, and that it is a
triangular rather than a dual relation’ (Penley 2000, 460). Penley’s
argument is well
founded. The imaginary is always subordinate to
the symbolic, even if the subject hi
mself is unaware of this fact. This
is why Lacan found in Jean
Paul Sartre such a valuable model for the
theorization of vision: Sartre too believed that the look is subject to
the look of the Other, and consequently to the symbolic order. Penley
uses th
is argument to attack feminists like Kristeva, Michele
Montelray and Irigaray, who are overly focused on the body. Their
objections to the construction of female sexuality in relation to a
third term, the phallus, and their solutions to this problem which

paradoxically return to the body, ignore the prevailing influence of
the symbolic order in the development of both female and male

“The risk of essence” unabashedly taken by these alternative theories
of the feminine typically involves…ignorin
g the important
psychoanalytic emphasis on the way that sexual identity is imposed
from the “outside”. By deriving gendered sexuality from the body, no
matter how indirectly, what is in danger of disappearing is the sense
of sexuality as an arbitrary iden
tity that is imposed on the subject, as
a law. (Penley 2000, 469)

This is a view that is shared by Doane who similarly criticizes French
feminists for their engagement in ‘a kind of ‘ghetto politics’’ (Doane
1993, 175). As a counter to the maleness of th
e cinematic apparatus,
Penley suggests that the way forward is not be found in a return to
the body, but in the analysis of fantasy, which ‘provides a way of
accounting for sexual difference but which in no way seeks to dictate
or predetermine the subseque
nt distribution of that difference’
(Penley 2000, 470).

Fantasy does closely resemble cinema in many of its aspects: it is a
staging of the subject’s desire, as identification in fantasy is shifting
and not fixed and the subject enters into the same cont
ract of
temporary belief in its reality. Elizabeth Cowie’s Fantasia is a full
length study on the dynamics of fantasy and their relation to cinema.
Like Penley, she too posits fantasy as the staging of desire or ‘the
scene of desire’ (Cowie 1993,

147). The importance of
fantasy for feminist theory lies in what Cowie describes as de
subjectivisation. She borrows this term for Lacan who refers to it in
Seminar XI.[2] In fantasy, the subject does not occupy a fixed
position, but is fluid, becoming

part of the syntax of the sequence
itself. Lacan’s theorization of fantasy opens the way for the analysis
of cinematic identification that is not dominated by the ‘male’
apparatus. Cowie argues that in the fiction film as in fantasy, the
subject’s ident
ification is likewise not fixed: ‘[b]oth the daydream
‘thoughtlessly’ composed and the more complex fictional narrative
join with the ‘original’ fantasies in visualizing the subject in the scene,
and in presenting a varying of subject positions so that the

takes up more than one position’ (Cowie 1993, 149).

Theorists like Cowie and Penley are attempting to show the
way forward for feminist film theory. Their intellectual engagement
with the concepts of psychoanalysis and their obvious

desire for a
theory of cinematic identification that is not a war waged across
gender lines shows a positive turnabout in itself. Nevertheless, while
the politics of gender continue to play the primary role in the
theorization of film identification for
feminists, it is difficult to
overcome the entrenchment of that position, which perhaps
precludes a broader, more inclusive analysis. As an example of the
possible effects of such a politics, I would like to conclude this section
by making reference to Do
ane’s article, ‘Heads in Hieroglyphic
Bonnets’. She begins by extracting a quote used by Freud to describe
female otherness: ‘[h]eads in hieroglyphic bonnets,/ Heads in
turbans and black birettas, /Heads in wigs and thousand other/
Wretched sweating heads

of humans’ (Heine, qtd. in Doane 2000,
495). By removing the quotation from its context however, Freud
omits the intended purpose of these lines for Heine, for whom they
serve to ponder not ‘”What is Woman”, but instead, “what signifies
Man?” (Doane 2000
, 495). Thus, Freud’s claim that he is
investigating the otherness of woman is revealed to be ‘a pretense,
haunted by the mirror effect by means of which the question of the
woman reflects only the man’s own ontological doubts’ (Doane 2000,
496). However
, it escapes Doane’s notice that Heine’s use of ‘Man’
(he was writing in the nineteenth century, after all) refers not to the
male, but is a linguistic convention used to signify mankind or
humankind. Thus, Doane commits a misreading based on gender
dice that mirrors Freud’s own. This error in Doane’s article is
symptomatic of the dangers of a feminist discourse that is
overzealous and which consequently runs the risk of either repeating
the gender bias that has been suffered by women, or what is per
worse, blinding itself to situations of equality when everything is
seen through the lens of a feminist politics.

Examining psychoanalytic issues from a specifically cinematic
point of view has significantly added to the critical debate on
psychoanalysis itself. It has isolated problems, clarified issues and
forwarded the theory in a way that would not ot
herwise have been
possible. From film theory’s idealistic beginnings with Eisenstein, it
became apparent that a conception of film that accounted for the
mechanisms of power and ideology was necessary. For a time,
Althusserian Marxism played this role un
til objections began to be
raised against the passive Althusserian subject. This engendered a
renewed interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis, for whom the subject is
constructed through ideology via the symbolic order, but who is also
a producer of meaning,
après coup, in the workings of signification.

The influence of semiotics on film criticism as outlined in relation to
Metz’s grande syntagmatique, also bore the influence of Lacan from a
different direction: that of linguistics, in his radical re

Saussure. From the dual influences of structuralism and Althusserian
Marxism that characterized British film theory, came a shift to a
mode of theory that could incorporate the psychological experience
of the spectator in the cinema. This challenge w
as taken up by Heath
and also by Metz, whose founding essay ‘The Imaginary Signifier’
showed the possibilities that Lacanian psychoanalysis could offer
film theory. In spite of the criticisms of theorists like Copjec and
Zizek; that film theory has perfor
med an over
simplification of the
Lacanian subject, their interjections into the theory have raised fresh
issues, steering film theory in a new direction, confirming the
importance of Lacan in the theorization of post
subjectivity. It is a subj
ectivity that is unendingly complex and
fragmented, which is at the mercy of multiple opposing forces, but
which contains a underlying bedrock of unity, perhaps coming closer
than any theory before it to explaining the multifarious, labyrinthine
nature of
the human psyche.


Copjec, Joan, 2000. ‘The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the
Reception of Lacan’ in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Robert
Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell. [pp. 437

Cowie, Elizabeth, 2000, ‘W
oman as Sign’ in Feminism and Film, ed. by
E. Ann Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press. [pp. 48

Cowie, Elizabeth, 1993. ‘From Fantasia’ in Contemporary Film
Theory. ed. by Anthony Easthope. New York: Longman. [pp. 147

Doane, Mary Ann,

2000, ‘Heads in Hieroglyphic Bonnets’ in Film and
Theory: an Anthology, ed. by Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford:
Blackwell. [pp. 495

Doane, Mary Ann, 1993, ‘Subjectivity and Desire: An(other) Way of
Looking’ in Contemporary Film Theory, ed. by

Anthony Easthope.
New York: Longman. [pp. 162

Doane, Mary Ann, 1990. ‘Remembering Women: Psychical and
Historical Constructions in Film Theory’ in Psychoanalysis and
Cinema. ed. by E. Ann Kaplan. London: Routledge. [pp. 46

Fink, Bruce, 2004. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Friedberg, Anne, 1990. ‘A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic
Identification’ in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. ed. by E. Ann Kaplan.
: Routledge. [pp. 36

Lacan, Jacques, 1977. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental
Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London:
Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Mulvey, Laura, 2000. 'Visual Pleasure and

Narrative Cinema' in Film
and Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Robert Stam and Toby Miller.
Oxford: Blackwell.

Mulvey, Laura, 1990. 'Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and
Narrative Cinema" inspired by Duel in the Sun' in Psychoanalysis and
Cinema. Edited
by E. Ann Kaplan.

Penley, Constance, 2000. ‘Feminism, Film Theory, and the Bachelor
Machines’ in Film and Theory: An Anthology. ed. by Robert Stam and
Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell. [pp. 456

Silverman, Kaja, 1988. The Acoustic Mirror: The Fem
ale Voice in
Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Zizek, Slavoj, 1992. Everything you Always Wanted to Know About
Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London: Verso.

Zizek, Slavoj
, 2000. ‘Looking Awry’ in Film and Theory: An Anthology,
ed. by Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Oxford: Blackwell. [pp. 524

Zizek, Slavoj, 2001. The Fright of Real Tears: Krystof Kieślowski
between Theory and Post Theory. London: BFI Publishing.

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552

[1] See part one of this article for a discussion of Metz’s ‘The
Imaginary Signifi

[2] See Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis, pg. 17.

[1] Part I of this essay is in Kritikos, Volume 2, February 2005: and Film
Theory Part 1.htm