Excerpts from Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema.


Excerpted from the article published as "Le Signifiant imaginaire" in Communications (I975), no. 23, and translated in Screen (Summer T975), 16(2):46-76. It is included in Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982; and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982); excerpts from chapter 2 and chapters 3-5. from: Rosen 1986: 244ff.)

The Investigator's Imaginary [this first section, pp. 244-247, is very general and methodologically oriented and can be skipped]

I ask myself: what in fact is the object of this text? What is the driving uncertainty without which I should not have the desire to write it, and thus would not be writing it? What is my imaginary at this moment? What is it that I am trying, even without illusions, to bring to a conclusion?

It seems to me that it is a question, in the material sense of the word—a sentence terminating in a question mark—and that, as in dreams, it is inscribed right there in front of me, armed from head to toe. I shall unfold it here, with, of course, that slightly obsessional coefficient which is party to any aspiration to rigor.

So let me spell it out: "What contribution can Freudian psychoanalysis make to the study of the cinematic signifier?"

This is, in other words, the manifest content of my dream, and its interpretation will (I hope) constitute my text. I can already see three vital points, three nodal points in it. Let me examine them separately (The Interpretation of Dreams /245/ invites us to do so, as does the minimal necessity of having a "plan"), and associate freely from each of them. They are the words "contribution," "Freudian psychoanalysis," and above all "cinematic signifier."

Psychoanalysis, Linguistics, History

"Contribution," then, first of all: this term tells me that psychoanalysis cannot be the only discipline concerned in the study of the cinematic signifier, and that its offering has to be articulated with others. To begin with, and fairly directly, with that of classical semiology—based on linguistics—a guiding principle in my earliest filmic investigations and today in those of several others. Why "directly"? Because linguistics and psychoanalysis are both sciences of the symbolic and are even, come to think of it, the only two sciences whose immediate and sole object is the fact of signification as such (obviously all sciences are concerned with it, but never so frontally or exclusively). To be slightly cavalier, linguistics—together with its close relations, notably modern symbolic logic—can be regarded as taking for its share the exploration of the secondary process, and psychoanalysis that of the primary process:[1] that is to say, between them they cover the whole field of the signification-fact taken in itself. Linguistics and psychoanalysis are the two main "sources" of semiology, the only disciplines that are semiotic through and through.

That is why both in turn have to be set within the horizon of a third perspective, which is, as it were, their common and permanent background: the direct study of societies, historical criticism, the examination of infrastructures. This time the junction is much less easy (if the other one can be described as easy), for the signifier has its own laws (primary and secondary), and so does political economy. Even technically, if one thinks of the daily work of the investigator, of his reading, his documentation, etc., the "dual competence" which was not impossible a moment ago now becomes a bit of a gamble: thus in the case of the cinema, where is the semiotician who could seriously claim, given his education and his specialized conceptual tools, to be able to explain the role of capitalist monopolies in the film industry in as pertinent and rigorous a way as economists like Henri Mercillon and his disciples have? In cinematic studies as in others, semiology (or semiologies) cannot replace the various disciplines that discuss the social fact itself (the source of all symbolism), with its laws that determine those of the symbolic without being identical with them: sociology, anthropology, history, political economy, demography, etc. It cannot replace them, nor must it repeat them (danger of ritual repetition or "reductionism"). It must take them into account, move forward on its own front (it too is materialist in its own way), and mark the anchorage points in all the cases in which the state of research already makes this possible (for example, the spectator's psychism as a factor of historical adjustment and a link in the chain of the money circuit). In /246/other words, it must be inscribed in advance, by a kind of epistemological anticipation (but one which must not become the pretext for a voluntary paralysis), in the perspective of a true knowledge of man—a perspective still only present as a dotted line in most of its circuit, and a knowledge in the singular very different from today's "human sciences," so often gnawed by scientism and yet necessary, for today is not tomorrow—of a state of knowing in which the way the development of technologies and balances of social forces (society in its physical state, as it were) finally comes to influence inflections peculiar to the work of the symbolic such as the order of "shots" or the role of "sound off" in some cinematic subcode, in some genre of films, for example, would be known in all the reality of the intermediate mechanisms without which only a global inkling and postulation of causality is possible.

Here I am touching on the famous problem of "relative autonomies" but not necessarily (although the two things are often confused) on a simple distinction between infrastructures and superstructures. For if it is clear that the cinema as an industry, its modes of financing, the technological development of film stock, the average income of the spectators (enabling them to go more or less often to the cinema), the price of seats, and many other things belong fully to infrastructural studies, it does not follow that, by some mechanical symmetry, the symbolic (primary or secondary) is exclusively superstructural in its order. It is partly so, of course, and even largely so in its most apparent strata, in its manifest content, in those of its features that are directly related to precise social facts and change when the latter change: e.g., in linguistics broad sectors of the lexicon (but already much less of phonology or syntax), in psychoanalysis the various historical variants of the Oedipus complex—or perhaps the Oedipus complex itself, which is far from being the whole of psychoanalysis—which are clearly linked to the development of the institution of the family. But signification also has more buried and permanent springs (ones by definition less visible, less striking to the mind) whose validity extends, in our present state of knowledge, to the whole of humanity, i.e., to man as a biological "species." Not that the symbolic is something "natural," nonsocial; on the contrary, in its deepest foundations (which are always structures and not "facts"), signification is no longer just a consequence of social development; it becomes, along with the infrastructures, a party to the constitution of sociality itself, which in its turn defines the human race. The partial "uncoupling" of the laws of signification from short-term historical developments does not mean a naturalization of the semiotic (its psychologization), but on the contrary reemphasizes its radical, as it were, definitional sociality. There is always a moment after the obvious observation that it is man who makes the symbol when it is also clear that the symbol makes man: this is one of the great lessons of psychoanalysis,[2] anthropology,[3] and linguistics.[4] /247/

Abstracting from the immense sector in which it is specifically cultural (varying in a time scale which is of the same order as that of history), the symbolic is thus not precisely a superstructure.[5] This does not make it an infrastructure, unless one departs from the strict (Marxist) sense of the term, and there is nothing to be gained from such a melange. Rather, in its deeper strata it represents a kind of juxtastructure, to use a term which has already been put forward[6] for other phenomena of the same kind, a juxtastructure in which are expressed, in the last analysis, certain characteristics of man as an animal (and as an animal different from all other animals, i.e., as a nonanimal too). I shall only recall two well-known examples of these "laws" (of these aspects of "The Law" as Lacan would say) that help underpin all significatory work: in linguistics, in all known idioms, double articulation, the paradigm/syntagm opposition, the necessary duplication of the logical generation of sentences into a categorial component and a transformational component; in psychoanalysis, in all known societies, the prohibition of incest (and yet sexual procreation, as in all the higher animals) along with the inevitable corollary of these two as it were contradictory facts, the very remarkable relationship (whether or no it consists of an Oedipus complex of the classical type) which each human offspring must definitely enter into with respect to its father and mother (or to a more diffuse world of kin) and thus a variety of major consequences such as repression, the division of the psychical apparatus into several systems which are relatively ignorant of one another, hence the permanent coexistence in human productions (such as films) of two irreducible "logics," one of which is "illogical" and opens permanently on to a multiplicity of overdeterminations, etc.

To sum up, the influence of linguistics and of psychoanalysis may lead gradually, in combination, to a relatively autonomous science of the cinema ( = "semiology of the cinema"), but the latter will deal simultaneously with facts which are superstructural and others which are not, without for all that being specifically infrastructural. In both these aspects its relation to truly infrastructural studies (cinematic and general) will continue to hold. It is on these three levels that the symbolic is social (hence it is entirely social). But, like the society which creates it and which it creates, it too has a materiality, a kind of body: it is in this almost physical state that it concerns semiology and that the semiologist desires it....


Identification, Mirror

"What contribution can Freudian psychoanalysis make to the knowledge of the cinematic signifier?" That was the question/dream I posed (the scientific imaginary wishing to be symbolized), and it seems to me that I have now more or /248/ less unwound it; unwound but no more; I have not given it an answer. I have simply paid attention to what it was I wished to say (one never knows this until one has written it down), I have only questioned my question: this unanswered character is one that has to be deliberately accepted, it is constitutive of any epistemological procedure.

Since I have wished to mark the places (as empty boxes some of which are beginning to fill without waiting for me, and so much the better), the places of different directions of work, and particularly of the last, the psychoanalytic exploration of the signifier, which concerns me especially, I must now begin to inscribe something in this last box; must take further, and more plainly in the direction of the unconscious, the analysis of the investigator's desire that makes me write. And to start with, of course, this means asking a new question: among the specific features of the cinematic signifier that distinguish the cinema from literature, painting, etc. which ones by nature call most directly on the type of knowledge that psychoanalysis alone can provide?


Perception, Imaginary

The cinema's signifier is perceptual (visual and auditory). So is that of literature, since the written chain has to be read, but it involves a more restricted perceptual register: only graphemes, writing. So too are those of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, but still within limits, and different ones: absence of auditory perception, absence in the visual itself of certain important dimensions such as time and movement (obviously there is the time of the look, but the object looked at is not inscribed in a precise and ordered time sequence forced on the spectator from outside). Music's signifier is perceptual as well, but, like the others, less "extensive" than that of the cinema: here it is vision which is absent, and even in the auditory, extended speech (except in song). What first strikes one then is that the cinema is more perceptual, if the phrase is allowable, than many other means of expression; it mobilizes a larger number of the axes of perception. (That is why the cinema has sometimes been presented as a "synthesis of all the arts"; which does not mean very much, but if we restrict ourselves to the quantitative tally of the registers of perception, it is true that thc cinema contains within itself the signifiers of other arts: it can present pictures to us, make us hear music, it is made of photographs, etc.)

Nevertheless, this as it were numerical "superiority" disappears if the cinema is compared with the theater, the opera, and other spectacles of the same type The latter too involve sight and hearing simultaneously, linguistic audition and nonlinguistic audition, movement, real temporal progression. Their difference from the cinema lies elsewhere: they do not consist of images, the perceptions they offer to the eye and the ear are inscribed in a true space (not a photographed one), the same one as that occupied by the public during the performance; /249/everything the audience hears and sees is actively produced in its presence, by human beings or props which are themselves present. This is not the problem of fiction but that of the definitional characteristics of the signifier: whether or no the theatrical play mimes a fable, its action, if need be mimetic, is still managed by real persons evolving in real time and space, on the same stage or "scene" as the public. The "other scene," which is precisely not so called, is the cinematic screen (closer to fantasy from the outset): what unfolds there may, as before, be more or less fictional, but the unfolding itself is fictive: the actor, the "decor," the words one hears are all absent, everything is recorded (as a memory trace which is immediately so, without having been something else before), and this is still true if what is recorded is not a "story" and does not aim for the fictional illusion proper. For it is the signifier itself, and as a whole, that is recorded, that is absence: a little rolled-up perforated strip which "contains" vast landscapes, fixed battles, the melting of the ice on the River Neva, and whole lifetimes, and yet can be enclosed in the familiar round metal tin, of modest dimensions, clear proof that it does not "really" contain all that.

At the theater, Sarah Bernhardt may tell me she is Phèdre or, if the play were from another period and rejected the figurative regime, she might say, as in a type of modern theater, that she is Sarah Bernhardt. But at any rate, I should see Sarah Bernhardt. At the cinema, she could make the same two kinds of speeches too, but it would be her shadow that would be offering them to me (or she would be offering them in her own absence). Every film is a fiction film.

What is at issue is not just the actor. Today there are a theater and a cinema without actors, or in which they have at least ceased to take on the full and exclusive function which characterizes them in classical spectacles. But what is true of Sarah Bernhardt is just as true of an object, a prop, a chair for example. On the theater stage, this chair may, as in Chekhov, pretend to be the chair in which the melancholy Russian nobleman sits every evening; on the contrary (in Ionesco), it can explain to me that it is a theater chair. But when all is said and done it is a chair. In the cinema, it will similarly have to choose between two attitudes (and many other intermediate or more tricky ones), but it will not be there when the spectators see it, when they have to recognize the choice; it will have delegated its reflection to them.


What is characteristic of the cinema is not the imaginary that it may happen to represent, but the imaginary that it is from the start, the imaginary that constitutes it as a signifier (the two are not unrelated; it is so well able to represent it because it is it; however, it is it even when it no longer represents it). The (possible) reduplication inaugurating the intention of fiction is preceded in the cinema by a first reduplication, always already achieved, which inaugurates the signifier. The imaginary, by definition, combines within it a certain presence and a certain absence. In the cinema it is not just the fictional signified, if there /250/ is one, that is thus made present in the mode of absence; it is from the outset the signifier.

Thus the cinema, "more perceptual" than certain arts according to the list of its sensory registers, is also "less perceptual" than others once the status of these perceptions is envisaged rather than their number or diversity; for its perceptions are all in a sense "false." Or rather, the activity of perception which it involves is real (the cinema is not a fantasy), but the perceived is not really the object, it is its shade, its phantom, its double, its replica in a new kind of mirror. It will be said that literature, after all, is itself only made of replicas (written words, presenting absent objects). But at least it does not present them to us with all the really perceived detail that the screen does (giving more and taking as much, i.e., taking more). The unique position of the cinema lies in this dual character of its signifier: unaccustomed perceptual wealth, but at the same time stamped with unreality to an unusual degree and from the very outset. More than the other arts, or in a more unique way, the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present.


The All-Perceiving Subject

Thus film is like thc mirror. But it differs from the primordial mirror in one essential point: although, as in the latter, everything may come to be projected, there is one thing and one thing only that is never reflected in it: the spectator's own body. In a certain emplacement, the mirror suddenly becomes clear glass.

In the mirror the child perceives the familiar household objects, and also its object par excellence, its mother, who holds it up in her arms to the glass. But above all it perceives its own image. This is where primary identification (the formation of the ego) gets certain of its main characteristics: the child sees itself as an other, and beside an other. This other other is its guarantee that the first is really it: by her authority, her sanction, in the register of the symbolic, subsequently by the resemblance between her mirror image and the cilild's (both have a human form). Thus the child's ego is formed by identification with its like, and this in two senses simultaneously, metonymically and metaphorically: the other human being who is in the glass, the own reflection which is and is not the body, which is like it. The child identifies with itself as an object.

In the cinema, the object remains: fiction or no, there is always something on the screen. But the reflection of the own body has disappeared. The cinema spectator is not a child and the child really at the mirror stage (from around six to around eighteen months) would certainly be incapable of "following" the simplest of films. Thus, what makes possible the spectator's absence from the screen—or rather the intelligible unfolding of the film despite that absence—is the fact that the spectator has already known the experience of the mirror (of /251/ the true mirror), and is thus able to constitute a world of objects without having first to recognize himself within it. In this respect, the cinema is already on the side of the symbolic (which is only to be expected): the spectator knows that objects exist, that he himself exists as a subject, that he becomes an object for others: he knows himself and he knows his like: it is no longer necessary that this similarity be literally depicted for him on the screen, as it was in the mirror of his childhood. Like every other broadly "secondary" activity, the practice of the cinema presupposes that the primitive undifferentiation of the ego and the nonego has been overcome.

But with what, then, does the spectator identify during the projection of the film? For he certainly has to identify: identification in its primal form has ceased to be a current necessity for him, but he continues, in the cinema—if he did not the film would become incomprehensible, considerably more incomprehensible than the most incomprehensible films—to depend on that permanent play of identification without which there would be no social life (thus, the simplest conversation presupposes the alternation of the I and the you; hence the aptitude of the two interlocutors for a mutual and reversible identification). What form does this continued identification, whose essential role Lacan has demonstrated even in the most abstract reasoning[7] and which constituted the "social sentiment" for Freud[8] (= the sublimation of a homosexual libido, itself a reaction to the aggressive rivalry of the members of a single generation after the murder of the father), take in the special case of one social practice among others, cinematic projection?

Obviously the spectator has the opportunity to identify with the character of the fiction. But there still has to be one. This is thus valid only for the narrative-representational film and not for the psychoanalytic constitution of the signifier of the cinema as such. The spectator can also identify with the actor, in more or less "afictional" films in which the latter is represented as an actor, not a character, but is still offered thereby as a human being (as a perceived human being) and thus allows identification. However, this factor (even added to the previous one and thus covering a very large number of films) cannot suffice. It only designates secondary identification in certain of its forms (secondary in the cinematic process itself, since in any other sense all identification except that of the mirror can be regarded as secondary).

An insufficient explanation, and for two reasons, the first of which is only the intermittent, anecdotal, and superficial consequence of the second (but for that reason more visible, and that is why I call it the first). The cinema deviates from the theater on an important point that has often been emphasized: it often presents us with long sequences that can (literally) be called "inhuman"—the familiar theme of cinematic "cosmomorphism" developed by many film theorists—sequences in which only inanimate objects, landscapes, etc. appear and which for minutes at a time offer no human form for the spectator identification: /252/ yet the latter must be supposed to remain intact in its deep structure, since at such moments the film works just as well as it does at others, and whole films (geographical documentaries, for example) unfold intelligibly in such conditions The second, more radical reason is that identification with the human form appearing on the screen, even when it occurs, still tells us nothing about the place of the spectator's ego in the inauguration of the signifier. As I have just pointed out, this ego is already formed. But since it exists, the question arises precisely of where it is during the projection of the film (the true primary identification, that of the mirror, forms the ego, but all other identifications presuppose, on the contrary, that it has been formed and can be "exchanged" for the object or the fellow subject). Thus when I "recognize" my like on the screen, and even more when I do not recognize it, where am I? Where is that someone who is capable of self-recognition when need be?

It is not enough to answer that the cinema, like every social practice, demands that the psychical apparatus of its participants be fully constituted, and that the question is thus the concern of general psychoanalytic theory and not that of the cinema proper. For my where is it? does not claim to go so far, or more precisely tries to go slightly further: it is a question of the point occupied by this already constituted ego, occupied during the cinema showing and not in social life in general.


The spectator is absent from the screen: unlike the child in the mirror, he cannot identify with himself as an object, but only with objects which are there without him. In this sense the screen is not a mirror. The perceived, this time, is entirely on the side of the object, and there is no longer any equivalent of the own image, of that unique mix of perceived and subject (of other and I) which was precisely the figure necessary to disengage the one from the other. At the cinema, it is always the other who is on the screen; as for me, I am there to look at him. I take no part in the perceived; on the contrary, I am all-perceiving. All-perceiving as one says all-powerful (this is the famous gift of"ubiquity" the film makes its spectator); all-perceiving, too, because I am entirely on the side of the perceiving instance: absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great eye and ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive it, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier (it is I who make the film). If the most extravagant spectacles and sounds or the most unlikely combination of them, the combination furthest removed from any real experience, do not prevent the constitution of meaning (and to begin with do not astonish the spectator, do not really astonish him, not intellectually: he simply judges the film as strange), that is because he knows he is at the cinema.

In the cinema the subject's knowledge takes a very precise form without which no film would be possible. This knowledge is dual (but unique). I know I am perceiving something imaginary (and that is why its absurdities, even if they /253/ are extreme, do not seriously disturb me), and I know that it is I who am perceiving it. This second knowledge divides in turn: I know that I am really perceiving, that my sense organs are physically affected, that I am not fantasizing, that the fourth wall of the auditorium (the screen) is really different from the other three, that there is a projector facing it (and thus it is not I who am projecting, or at least not all alone), and I also know that it is I who am perceiving all this, that this perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen, that it is in me that it forms up into an organized sequence, that therefore I am myself the place where this really perceived imaginary accedes to the symbolic by its inauguration as the signifier of a certain type of institutionalized social activity called the "cinema."

In other words, the spectator identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception (as wakefulness, alertness): as the condition of possibility of the perceived and hence as a kind of transcendental subject, which comes before every there is.

A strange mirror, then, very like that of childhood, and very different. Very like, as Jean-Louis Baudry has emphasized,[9] because during the showing we are, like the child, in a submotor and hyperperceptive state; because, like the child again, we are prey to the imaginary, the double, and are so paradoxically through a real perception. Very different, because this mirror returns us everything but ourselves, because we are wholly outside it, whereas the child is both in it and in front of it. As an arrangement (and in a very topographical sense of the word), the cinema is more involved on the flank of the symbolic, and hence of secondariness, than is the mirror of childhood. This is not surprising, since it comes long after it, but what is more important to me is the fact that it is inscribed in its wake with an incidence at once so direct and so oblique, which has no precise equivalent in other apparatuses of signification.


Identification with the Camera

The preceding analysis coincides in places with others which have already been proposed and which I shall not repeat: analyses of quattrocento painting or of the cinema itself which insist on the role of monocular perspective (hence of the camera) and the "vanishing point" that inscribes an empty emplacement for the spectator-subject, an all-powerful position which is that of God himself, or more broadly of some ultimate signified. And it is true that as he identifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking at and whose stationing (= framing) determines the vanishing point. During the projection this camera is absent, but it has a representative consisting of another apparatus, called precisely a "projector." An apparatus the spectator has behind him, at the back of his head,[10] that is, precisely where fantasy locates the "focus" of all vision./254/All of us have experienced our own look, even outside the so-called salles obscures [ = cinemas], as a kind of searchlight turning on the axis of our own necks (like a pan) and shifting when we shift (a tracking shot now): as a cone of light (without the microscopic dust scattered through it and streaking it in the cinema) whose vicariousness draws successive and variable slices of obscurity from nothingness wherever and whenever it comes to rest. (And in a sense that is what perception and consciousness are, a light, as Freud put it,[11] in the double sense of an illumination and an opening, as in the arrangement of the cinema, which contains both, a limited and wandering light that only attains a small part of the real, but on the other hand possesses the gift of casting light on it). Without this identification with the camera certain facts could not be understood, though they are constant ones: the fact, for example, that the spectator is not amazed when the image "rotates" (= a pan) and yet he knows he has not turned his head. The explanation is that he has no need to turn it really, he has turned it in his all-seeing capacity, his identification with the movement of the camera being that of a transcendental, not an empirical subject.

All vision consists of a double movement: projective (the "sweeping" searchlight) and introjective: consciousness as a sensitive recording surface (as a screen). I have the impression at once that, to use a common expression, I am "casting" my eyes on things, and that the latter, thus illuminated, come to be deposited within me (we then declare that it is these things that have been "projected," on to my retina, say). A sort of stream called the look, and explaining all the myths of magnetism, must be sent out over the world, so that objects can come back up this stream in the opposite direction (but using it to find their way), arriving at last at our perception, which is now soft wax and no longer an emitting source.

The technology of photography carefully conforms to this (banal) fantasy accompanying perception. The camera is "trained" on the object like a firearm (= projection) and the object arrives to make an imprint, a trace, on the receptive surface of the filmstrip (= introjection). The spectator himself does not escape these pincers, for he is part of the apparatus, and also because pincers, on the imaginary plane (Melanie Klein), mark our relation to the world as a whole and are rooted in the primary figures of orality. During the performance the spectator is the searchlight I have described, duplicating the projector, which itself duplicates the camera, and he is also the sensitive surface duplicating the screen, which itself duplicates the filmstrip. There are two cones in the auditorium: one ending on the screen and starting both in the projection box and in the spectator's vision insofar as it is projective, and one starting from the screen and "deposited" in the spectator's perception insofar as it is introjective (on the retina, a second screen). When I say that "I see" the film, I mean thereby a unique mixture of two contrary currents: the film is what I receive, and it is also what I release, since it does not preexist my entering the auditorium and I only need close my eyes to suppress it. Releasing it, I am the projector, receiving it, I am the screen; /255/in both these figures together, I am the camera, which points and yet which records.

Thus the constitution of the signifier in the cinema depends on a series of mirror effects organized in a chain, and not on a single reduplication. In this the cinema as a topography resembles that other "space," the technical equipment (camera, projector, filmstrip, screen, etc.), the objective precondition of the whole institution: as we know, the apparatuses too contain a series of mirrors, lenses, apertures, and shutters, ground glasses, through which the cone of light passes: a further reduplication in which the equipment becomes a metaphor (as well as the real source) for the mental process instituted. Further on we shall see that it is also its fetish.

In the cinema, as elsewhere, the constitution of the symbolic is only achieved through and above the play of the imaginary: projection-introjection, presence-absence, fantasies accompanying perception, etc. Even when acquired, the ego still depends in its underside on the fabulous figures thanks to which it has been acquired and which have marked it lastingly with the stamp of the lure. The secondary process does no more than "cover" (and not always hermetically) the primary process which is still constantly present and conditions the very possibility of what covers it.

Chain of many mirrors, the cinema is at once a weak and a robust mechanism: like the human body, like a precision tool, like a social institution. And the fact is that it is really all these at the same time.

And I, at this moment, what am I doing if not adding to all these reduplications one more whereby theory is attempting to set itself up? Am I not looking at myself looking at the film? This passion for seeing (and also hearing), the foundation of the whole edifice, am I not turning it, too, on (against) that edifice? Am I not still the voyeur I was in front of the screen, now that it is this voyeur who is being seen, thus postulating a second voyeur, the one writing at present, myself again?


On the Idealist Theory of the Cinema

The place of the ego in the institution of the signifier, as transcendental yet radically deluded subject, since it is the institution (and even the equipment) that gives it this place, surely provides us with an appreciable opportunity the better to understand and judge the precise epistemological import of the idealist theory of the cinema which culminates in the remarkable works of Andre Bazin. Before thinking directly about their validity, but simply reading texts of this kind, one cannot but be struck by the great precision, the acute and immediately sensitive intelligence that they often demonstrate; at the same time they give the diffuse impression of a permanent ill-foundedness (which affects nothing and yet affects /256/ everything); they suggest that somewhere they contain something like a weak point at which the whole might be overturned.

It is certainly no accident that the main form of idealism in cinematic theory has been phenomenology. Bazin and other writers of the same period explicitly acknowledged their debt to it, and more implicitly (but in a more generalized fashion) all conceptions of the cinema as a mystical revelation, as "truth" or "reality" unfolding by right, as the apparition of what is [l'etant], as an epiphany, derive from it. We all know that the cinema has the gift of sending some of its lovers into prophetic trances. However, these cosmophanic conceptions (which are not always expressed in an extreme form) register rather well the "feeling" of the deluded ego of the spectator; they often give us excellent descriptions of this feeling, and to this extent there is something scientific about them and they have advanced our knowledge of the cinema. But the lure of the ego is their blind spot. These theories are still of great interest, but they have, so to speak, to be put the other way round, like the optical image of the film.

For it is true that the topographical apparatus of the cinema resembles the conceptual apparatus of phenomenology, with the result that the latter can cast light on the former. (Besides, in any domain, a phenomenology of the object to be understood, a "receptive" description of its appearances, must be the starting point; only afterward can criticism begin; psychoanalysts, it should be remembered, have their own phenomenology.) The there is of phenomenology proper (philosophical phenomenology) as an ontic revelation referring to a perceiving subject ( = "perceptual cogito"), to a subject for which alone there can be anything, has close and precise affinities with the installation of the cinema signifier in the ego as I have tried to define it, with the spectator withdrawing into himself as a pure instance of perception, the whole of the perceived being "out there." To this extent the cinema really is the "phenomenological art" it has often been called, by Merleau-Ponty himself, for example. [12] But it can only be so because its objective determinations make it so. The ego's position in the cinema does not derive from a miraculous resemblance between the cinema and the natural characteristics of all perception; on the contrary, it is foreseen and marked in advance by the institution (the equipment, the disposition of the auditorium, the mental system that internalizes the two), and also by more general characteristics of the physical apparatus (such as projection, the mirror structure, etc.), which although they are less strictly dependent on a period of social history and a technology, do not therefore express the sovereignty of a "human vocation," but inversely are themselves shaped by certain specific features of man as an animal (as the only animal that is not an animal): his primitive Hilflosigheit [helplessness], his dependence on another's care (the lasting source of the imaginary, of object relations, of the great oral figures of feeding), the motor prematurity of the child which condemns it to an initial self-recognition by sight (hence outside itself) anticipating a muscular unity it does not yet possess.

In other words, phenomenology can contribute to knowledge of the cinema /257/(and it has done so) insofar as it happens to be like it, and yet it is on the cinema and phenomenology in their common illusion of perceptual mastery that light must be cast by the real conditions of society and man.


On Some Subcodes of Identification

The play of identification defines the cinematic situation in its generality, i.e., the code. But it also allows more specific and less permanent configurations, "variations" on it, as it were; they intervene in certain coded figures which occupy precise segments of precise films.

What I have said about identification so far amounts to the statement that the spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but also (the two things inevitably go together) present there and even "all-present" as perceiver. At every moment I am in the film by my look's caress. This presence often remains diffuse, geographically undifferentiated, evenly distributed over the whole surface of the screen; or more precisely hovering, like the psychoanalyst's listening, ready to catch on preferentially to some motif in the film, according to the force of that motif and according to my own fantasies as a spectator, without the cinematic code itself intervening to govern this anchorage and impose it on the whole audience. But in other cases, certain articles of the cinematic codes or subcodes (which I shall not try to survey completely here) are made responsible for suggesting to the spectator the vector along which his permanent identification with his own look should be extended temporarily inside the film (the perceived) itself. Here we meet various classic problems of cinematic theory, or at least certain aspects of them: subjective images, out-of-frame space, looks (looks and no longer the look, but the former are articulated to the latter).

There are various sorts of subjective image, and I have tried elsewhere (following Jean Mitry) to distinguish between them.[13] Only one of them will detain me for the moment, the one which "expresses the viewpoint of the filmmaker" in the standard formula (and not the viewpoint of a character, another traditional subcase of the subjective image): unusual framings, uncommon shot angles, etc., as for example in one of the sketches which make up Julien Duvivier's film Carnet de bal (the sketch with Pierre Blanchar, shot continuously in tilted framings). In the standard definitions one thing strikes me: I do not see why these uncommon angles should express the viewpoint of the filmmaker any more than perfectly ordinary angles, closer to the horizontal. However, the definition is comprehensible even in its inaccuracy: precisely because it is uncommon, the uncommon angle makes us more aware of what we had merely forgotten to some extent in its absence: an identification with the camera (with "the author's viewpoint"). The ordinary framings are finally felt to be nonframings: I espouse the filmmaker's look (without which no cinema would be possible), but my /258/ consciousness is not too aware of it. The uncommon angle reawakens me and (like the cure) teaches me what I already knew. And then, it obliges my look to stop wandering freely over the screen for the moment and to scan it along more precise lines of force which are imposed on me. Thus for a moment I become directly aware of the emplacement of my own presence-absence in the film simply because it has changed.

Now for looks. In a fiction film, the characters look at one another. It can happen (and this is already another "notch" in the chain of identifications) that a character looks at another who is momentarily out-of-frame, or else is looked at by him. If we have gone one notch further, this is because everything out-of frame brings us closer to the spectator, since it is the peculiarity of the latter to be out-of-frame (the out-of-frame character thus has a point in common with him: he is looking at the screen). In certain cases the out-of-frame character's look is "reinforced" by recourse to another variant of the subjective image, generally christened the "character's point of view": the framing of the scene corresponds precisely to the angle from which the out-of-frame character looks at the screen. (The two figures are dissociable, moreover: we often know that the scene is being looked at by someone other than ourselves, by a character, but it is the logic of the plot, or an element of the dialogue, or a previous image that tells us so, not the position of the camera, which may be far from the presumed emplacement of the out-of-frame onlooker.)

In all sequences of this kind, the identification that founds the signifier is twice relayed, doubly duplicated in a circuit that leads it to the heart of the film along a line which is no longer hovering, which follows the inclination of the looks and is therefore governed by the fiim itself: the spectator's look (= the basic identification), before dispersing all over the surface of the screen in a variety of intersecting lines ( = looks of the characters in the frame = second duplication), must first "go through"—as one goes through a town on a journey, or a mountain pass—the look of the character out-of-frame (= first duplication), himself a spectator and hence the first delegate of the true spectator, but not to be confused with the latter since he is inside if not the frame then at least the fiction. This invisible character, supposed (like the spectator) to be seeing, will collide obliquely with the latter's look and play the part of an obligatory intermediary. By offering himself as a crossing for the spectator, he inflects the circuit followed by the sequence of identifications, and it is only in this sense that he is himself seen: as we see through him, we see ourselves not seeing him.

Examples of this kind are much more numerous and each of them is much more complex than I have suggested here. At this point textual analysis of precise film sequences is an indispensable instrument of knowledge. I just wished to show that in the end there is no break in continuity between the child's game with the mirror and, at the other extreme, certain localized figures of the cinematic codes. /259/The mirror is the site of primary identification. Identification with one's own look is secondary with respect to the mirror, i.e., for a general theory of adult activities, but it is the foundation of the cinema and hence primary when the latter is under discussion: it is primary cinematic identification proper ("primary identification" would be inaccurate from the psychoanalytic point of view; "secondary identification," more accurate in this respect, would be ambiguous for a cinematic psychoanalysis). As for identifications with characters, with their own different levels (out-of-frame character, etc.), they are secondary, tertiary cinematic identifications, etc.; taken as a whole in opposition to the identification of the spectator with his own look, they constitute secondary cinematic identification in the singular.[14]


"Seeing a Film"

Freud noted, vis-a-vis the sexual act, [15] that the most ordinary practices depend on a large number of psychical functions which are distinct but work consecutively, so that all of them must be intact if what is regarded as a normal performance is to be possible (it is because neurosis and psychosis dissociate them and put some of them out of court that a kind of commutation is made possible whereby they can be listed retrospectively by the analyst). The apparently very simple act of seeing a film is no exception to this rule. As soon as it is subjected to analysis it reveals to us a complex, multiply interconnected imbrication of the functions of the imaginary, the real, and the symbolic, which is also required in one form or another for every procedure of social life, but whose cinematic manifestation is especially impressive, since it is played out on a small surface. (To this extent the theory of the cinema may some day contribute something to psychoanalysis, even if, through force of circumstances, this "reciprocation" remains very limited at the moment, the two disciplines being very unevenly developed.)

In order to understand the fiction film, I must both "take myself" for the character (= an imaginary procedure) so that he benefits, by analogical projection, from all the schemata of intelligibility that I have within me, and not take myself for him (= the return to the real) so that the fiction can be established as such (= as symbolic): this is seeming-real. Similarly, in order to understand the film (at all), I must perceive the photographed object as absent, its photograph as present, and the presence of this absence as signifying. The imaginary of the cinema presupposes the symbolic, for the spectator must first of all have known the primordial mirror. But as the latter instituted the ego very largely in the imaginary, the second mirror of the screen, a symbolic apparatus, itself in turn depends on reflection and lack. However, it is not fantasy, a "purely" symbolic imaginary site, for the absence of the object and the codes of that absence are really produced in it by the physis of an equipment: the cinema is a body (a corpus for the semiologist), a fetish that can be loved.