Lacan and Cinema Studies


This is a good account of this important, though difficult (!), topic by Rosen 1986. It will greatly help in your understanding of the following text if you have previously studied Rosen's account of the significance of structuralism for cinema studies and perhaps also Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." I encourage you to follow the links to the glossary and to the examples.

(from: Rosen 1986: 160ff.)


Freud's "discovery" of the unconscious is inseparable from his account of human identity as being founded on a repression which is a necessary condition for forming a sense of self.

For Freudians, primary experiences of identity are constructed against a radical anxiety, summarized as castration anxiety. Processes of desire, sexuality, and fantasy are intertwined with consciousness of self, which is produced to counter that founding anxiety and is always in dialectic with it. As a result, the normal experience of identity occurs only on condition that its basic processes are hidden from the "I" thus constructed. This is an essential Freudian point: there is always a fundamental misrecognition involved in the individual's desire to find—or recognize—his or her self as stable and secure.

The thesis that the unconscious is the basis for the existence of self-consciousness ("ego") can therefore serve as an explanation of the generalized desire of individual humans to seek secure subjective positions. Classical psychoanalytical conceptions could therefore be of great importance to the theorization of how films appeal to human subjects. In addition, however, the psychoanalytic theory utilized in recent cinema semiotics has often been inflected by the work of Jacques Lacan. Much of the conceptual apparatus for the most influential work on subject positioning in cinema has been provided by his formulations. It will therefore be useful to outline briefly a few aspects of those formulations which have been especially evident in filmtheoretical argument.[1]

We may begin with Lacan's heavy emphasis on the "entry" of a human infant "into" language. This occurs around the period of the child's discovery of sexual difference and the Oedipal conflicts traditionally highlighted in psychoanalytic thought. There are two general points of interest for semiotics in this. The first is simply that it leads Lacan to stress the importance of signification (especially in verbal language) for psychoanalytic investigations, and hence his work has often been used to develop connections between semiotics and psychoanalysis. The second is that Lacan explicitly follows Saussure in conceiving of language as a system of differences, which channels those connections in very specific ways.

For a Saussurian semiologist, the relation of difference is fundamental to signification, an a priori of language which becomes the premise of the analyst's work. Lacan goes beyond the givenness of difference, building on the terms of linguistic investigation to emphasize the role assigned to difference in psychoanalytic thought. Linguistics, strictly speaking, does not answer the question of how an individual human comes to recognize aspects of its universe in their differences. Psychoanalysis can answer that this recognition is not only a precondition for the individual to become a signifying being, but is also tied to the human's development as a sexed subject. In the classical psychoanalytic account of the genesis of the subject, the discovery of the possibility of difference /161/ coalesces around the relation of the individual to the difference between male and female bodies. At the time the child begins recognizing sexual difference, it has already begun to acquire a sense of identity, but that sense of selfhood is "pre-Oedipal:" narcissistic, all-encompassing, and essentially asocial. The Oedipal phase, revolving around the discovery of sexual difference by the child, completes the transformation of the infant into a social subject.

Lacan's far-reaching supplement to this classical psychoanalytic account is to argue that the existence of signifying processes is central to the transition and far-reaching consequences associated with Oedipal experiences. It is a major tenet of classical psychoanalysis that during the Oedipal crisis there normally occurs the more or less permanent "splitting" of the psyche between what is available to consciousness and the unconscious. The individual assumes the identity of a sexed subject, as the unconscious and repression become a constant fact of that subject. Lacan adds that fundamental to the Oedipal knotting of identity and sexuality is symbolization. That is, as an individual comes to awareness of self as a separate subject who is sexed, he or she "enters" what Lacan calls the symbolic order, and becomes a subject in language as well.

The importance of symbolization and language for Freud has always been evident, for example in his concern with dream symbolization and slips of the tongue. But the implications of Lacan's theoretical emphasis on this perspective are nevertheless enormous. He ultimately means that the relations of the subject posited as central by psychoanalysis—for example, between conscious and unconscious, and of the individual to other bodies and to objects—cannot be understood without taking the framework of signifying systematicity into account. Among other things this approach can provide the basis for an account of the appeal of representational processes.

[...] In this introduction the aim is only to highlight some Lacanian emphases of more specific pertinence to cinema. Nevertheless, it will first be useful to outline four general hypotheses common in Lacanian approaches to signification:

1. Difference as a linguistic (or semiotic) concept is associated with difference as a psychoanalytic category.

Lacan's linguistics is a Saussurian linguistics, for which signification takes place as a play of pertinent systemic differences among signifiers. For Lacan, this ties signification to the psychoanalytic account of the infant which stresses that in order to acquire identity individual humans must learn to recognize differences in the world. Primary awareness of difference in the child's universe focuses on an experience of the body, coalescing through the castration complex around sexual differentiation. That is, for psychoanalysis the discovery of differencc is inextricably associated with a phantasmatic attack upon one's own body.

On the one hand, the formation of identity requires a founding awareness of /162/ one's own body precisely as ones own. But in that case, an attack upon it is an extreme psychic threat. Hence, the harshness of the child's dilemma: in order to become a self-aware human individual—a subject—the child must experience that founding anxiety. Now, this is roughly the same time that the child "acquires" language, and for Lacan this means the onset of awareness of bodily difference in the experience of castration is not separable from the practical comprehension of the principle of difference in signification. But in that case—if a central strand of the Oedipal "knot" is the establishing of the individual's identity in language and signification—the symbolic order is entered on the basis of dread.

2. The impression of coherent meaning is produced in signifying practices against heterogeneity and difference; this coherence therefore works for the constant reassurance and production of the subject's full identity.

Let us suppose, with Lacan, that the developing self-consciousness of the child comes terrified into signifying systematicity. What would such a developing self-consciousness seek there? What could a signifying system offer it? Presumably, there would have to be some reassurance against the central anxiety which psychoanalysis labels as castration. Therefore, at least from the subject's perspective, signifying systems would have to include something at the service of coherent identity, of a security of self. This occurs on the level of meaning. The impression of a reassuringly adequate relation between signifier and signified and/or sign and referent is achieved in practice for the subject, despite the fact of the arbitrariness of the sign and the basis of language in what threatens the subject—difference. (However, we will shortly indicate how that achievement is only a qualified one.) Thus, Lacanian psychoanalysis is (among other things) an account of how, in and through signification, the individual is "sutured" into "secure" meaning at the service of "stable" identity.

To understand why secure meaning should confirm the subject in its identity, briefly consider the purported attributes of an utterance which seems "adequate." Such an utterance is said to 'tommunicate a thought" originating in the speaking subject to a listening subject who then understands that thought. Very simply, any such instance of language use will offer both subjects a secure position insofar as an impression of delimitable meaning is achieved: I speak and you understand.

Now, such adequation is often described as a relation of substitutibility between sign and referent or between signifier and signified. But that is not the lesson here; rather, it is precisely to the extent that the sign or signifier can be thus comprehended as adequate that the subject is safely positioned as such. This is because that adequation is an experience of guaranteed understanding and/or knowledge by the subject: it is I who comprehend, it is my capacities which are demonstrated in "sending" and "receiving" "communications." (And this approach can be extended to the framework of understanding or being entertained by a film).

But note that this effect occurs as one of unificaton and homogeneity. The /163/principle of difference, at work in and defining the very material employed as the basis of signification, is to be overlooked or overcome in search of meaning as coherent, and this coherence is then attributed to the very being of the subject(s) of the speech situation. Thus, while a position for the subject is therefore achieved as the apparent effect of a determination of signifier by signified, actually the crucial effect lies in the homogenizing aspect. Since Lacan accepts the Saussurian account, however, this appearance can only be a constitutive illusion of the subject. In actuality, the signifiers are the locus of the play of difference subtending signification and meaning, so the determinations of the speech situation are the reverse of its appearance: it is the signifier which determines the subject as a certain position in meaning—not the subject which determines the signified by the act of communicating his or her thoughts.

Thus, it is not the subject who uses the signifying system, but the signifying system which defines the subject. It is not the subject who "speaks" the signified, but the signifier which "speaks" the subject. But this is precisely what the subject cannot consistently recognize while maintaining its own existence, for processes of difference cannot be separated from the experience of the castration complex. This is why the subject, though it exists "through" the play of differences, has a stake in overvaluing a homogenizing signified as against the system of differences which determines signification.

From a logical viewpoint based on the principle of noncontradiction, there is something of the illogical, the paradoxical, the impossible about the functioning of the subject in and through the symbolic order. The child must be able to comprehend difference in the world in order to exist in signification and therefore culture, but the function of difference is tied to the terror of castration anxiety and therefore demands repression. Yet the linguistic system, the most determinant signifying system for Lacan, is founded precisely on a system of differences, so that any instance of language use is potential evidence of that which threatens the subject. Thus, if the consciousness of the child is formed in language to seek security in the face of difference, and if it enters the symbolic order in such a quest, there would seem to be no permanent solution available in signification to the subject. It could only seek temporary, recurrent solutions to its dilemmas of identity.

3. Subjective life can be described as the constant interrelations between processes of the imaginary order and the symbolic order.

To put it simply, the law of noncontradiction is not determinant in the unconscious. There must be psychic processes which can repetitively find this logically dubious homogeneity against the symbolic order for the subject as a stable identity. For a subject to recognize itself as secure and stable in language, it must read "through" the materiality of language as a structuring of differences and in spite of the latter find evidence of self-coherence.

Most generally, this unifying, coherence-seeking impulse is what Lacan calls the imaginary order. On the one hand, the imaginary names those psychic forces /164/ which are fundamentally contrary to the symbolic: the imaginary, rooted in pre-Oedipal formations of the nascent sense of self, seeks cohercnce for the ego and therefore an end to difference against castration. The symbolic, on the other hand, is built on difference and therefore inseparable from the experience of castration. Thus, the imaginary order strives toward the assumption of full identity against the symbolic.

On the other hand, these two orders of subjectivity are intricately and inevitably interdependent. If the quest of the imaginary is for an absolute and permanent confirmation of identity, it cannot put aside the signifying system whose constitution threatens such stability, but must work through it. Once castration and repression have occurred, the individual is irreversibly "in" the symbolic, so it is only "through" the symbolic that the imaginary can seek reassurance—by means of "positions" in signifying processes which (temporarily but repetitively) provide for the reconfirmation of the subject's identity.

But furthermore, the symbolic requires the imaginary. How could signification exist without "beings" who "wish" to assume positions of subjects of language and in language? This is the fundamental Lacanian dialectic: there is the necessity of the imaginary to find a sense of coherence and wholeness, which impels the subject to seek confirmation of coherent identity "outside" itself, in its relation to "the other". But the subject can only experience this "outside" as "the Other," that is, with the mediation of the symbolic, which was entered by means of the Oedipal experience and all that implies in psychoanalytic thought. [see: oedipal crisis] The subject, then, is always seeking to overcome the alienation and threats to the sense of self which follows from the period of castration and entry into the symbolic order. The goal of the imaginary is an impossible one, so it can at most be achieved temporarily in substitutions, whether of objects or in signification. Or rather, it is signifying structures which define what can count as such a satisfaction, no matter what the "material" of that satisfaction is. But since in the last instance only substitutions are attainable (the sign can never be the thing), identity must always deal with its own ultimate lacks.

4. Signification occurs in the face of lack with the phallus as a privileged signifier of desire.

We have seen that in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the constant, definitional threat to the coherence of the subject classically attributed to castration overlaps with the relation of the subject to signification in general and language in particular. As indicated by Freud, the search for subjective security is unending (this is what is established in the psychoanalytic concept of castration). Insofar as the subject achieves security by finding homogeneous meaning, the conception of signification as the play of differences combined with the thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign deprive confirmations of identity of any absolute success.

Since the subject's relation to the world—to otherness—is through signification, the real (another special Lacanian term) is ultimately unreachable in any direct way, but is only constructed in the symbolic, as "reality."[2] Underlying the /165/ discursive constructions through which the subject is constantly in search of itself, there is always a basic inadequacy to signification, a lack. From the perspective of the imaginary, then, there is always something tenuous for the subject. On the level of signification, no matter how much a given discourse is shaped to apply pressure toward unification, adequacy, clear meaning, reference to the real, and so forth, it will also manifest more or less strongly its own heterogeneous processes, that is, the discursive production of that pressure. As Saussure banishes the referent from the processes of signification that produce meaning, Lacan banishes any direct contact with the real outside signification from the experience of the subject. Thus, if the imaginary pushes for an absolute assurance in representation, representation is never what it seems, so the problem is insoluble.

The fundamental lack in signification translates into an underlying lack in being and identity. This is why the connection of signification to castration is more than analogy. As a way of emphasizing this, we can here note the drastic consequences which the necessary inadequacies of signification have for subjective life by outlining Lacan's conception of the phallus as the fundamentally important signifier (rather than a bodily part).

The child enters the symbolic order looking for ways to defend its sense of self, which is, on the basis of the Oedipal crisis, now felt to be lacking. It is the terms of that lack and their special relation to signification which the concept of the phallus as signifier apprehends. The triangular structure of mother, child, and father is treated by Lacan not as a sociological reality, but as a structure; the three terms are defined by their relations to one another, as structural functions. That is, it does not matter whether there is a "real" father or mother; rather what matters is a set of relations which introduces lack into the universe of the infant.

Now, it is precisely difference, lack, which finds its signifier in the phallus. Lacan emphasizes this in relation to certain other psychoanalytic concepts, such as that of desire. A subject's desire for total love is inevitably included in any demand or request signified to an Other for a particular object of need. (Structurally, the model here is an infant's demand to the mother.) But that desire finds its unconscious token in this privileged signifier of lack, the phallus. We must return once more to the concept of castration to explicate this.

In the Oedipal scenario a dyadic relation of mother to child is broken and made into a triangular relation when the child must confront the intervention of a third term, the father. In this scenario, the child processes the consequent shocks and traumas in such a way to result in the advent of the subject as split (between conscious and a repressed unconscious), as signifying, as sexual (male or female), and as a desiring being. These consequences occur by the fantastic representation of lack: the penis which is an attribute of the father but not of the mother is converted into a signifier, and through that conversion the child enters the symbolic order /166/

Without going into detail on all the theoretical twists and turns, some Lacanian emphases on this matter include the following: first, from now on in subjective life, the penis is no longer a bodily part, but a signifer—the phallus. (Indeed, how could the "missing" phallic attribute of the mother even be anything but a fantastic signifier?) Second, the phallus as signifier is a signifier of difference (this links the castration complex and the symbolic order) and therefore at some level must be understood as such by the subject in order to become a sexed being and in order to enter signification. That is, the child must comprehend the principle of difference in order to be a signifying being, which means that difference must be signified; that function is occupied by the phallus. Thus, even though the phallus might be conceived as that which is the subject's ultimate desire, it nevertheless continues to be the signifier of lack itself.

Third, Lacan places great stress on the psychoanalytic concept of desire, and the phallus is the ultimate token or signifier for desire. In the Oedipal structure, the recognition of difference occurs when the child discovers the mother as lacking and therefore imputes to her a consequent desire for that which she lacks: the phallus of the father. Thus, for the child the phallus is that which the mother desires. It is in the desire of the mother that desire is initiated in the child. To maintain the full, dyadic relation to the mother, the child would like to assume the function which the phallus occupies in the desire of the mother, that is, would like to he the phallus which the mother lacks. But this is of course impossible, for the phallus is a fantastic signifier; so the child will have to be satisfied with an unending series of substitutes for what it is not, namely the phallus for the mother.

This initiation of the subject into desire helps explain why desire can never be permanently satisfied: it is unending because a perfect object which would terminate it can never be found. Thus, the processes of desire can only be specified on the level of inadequate substitutions—of signs. And the phallus both provides the signifier around which the fixations of meaning (imaginary stoppages of desire) coalesce, while it simultaneously signifies the principle of difference which determines that any objcct will always be lacking. The concept of the phallus as signifier once again highlights paradoxical situation of a subject seeking stasis (identity), but which always must do this in dynamic processes.[3]

The Lacanian triad of the imaginary order, the symbolic order, and the real models a fundamental view of subjective processes. Having outlined that triad, we can now begin returning to a more direct consideration of film theory. Lacan's intricate account can be seen as explicating the category of the unified, coherent subject as a reality of experience, but as a produced reality, a construct. From one perspective, as Lacan would claim, this is only an elaboration of the classical psychoanalytic insight that a sense of self is inseparable from repressive mechanisms, and that what is repressed is precisely what necessitates the re- /167/ markable defenses of identity. But the conception of the human psyche resulting from this elaboration, with its emphasis on and theorization of operations of signification, might be extremely attractive for a semiotics seeking a level of explanation which supercedes the definition and implementation of structural categories, as well as for filling out the concept of interpellation as a generalized social mechanism. For example, the centrality thus posited of the phallus as signifier is one of the elements of Lacanian theory which has made it useful for feminist film theorists (it provides an account of phallocentric desire in relation to representation) and simultaneously has made it problematic for them (it becomes difficult to conceive of desire in a nonphallocentric way).

Just as pertinent here, we can note that, despite its stress on verbal language, Lacan's theorization of the processes of desire which move an individual to assume a position of a supposedly self-conscious subject in language and representation has its special attractions for a semiotics of visual representation. One general tendency in psychoanalytic thought is to seek cases or events which are especially revealing of widespread structures and processes underlying conscious experience. This has led to a common practice of privileging certain scenarios in order to explore such underlying processes. Lacanian psychoanalysis stresses mechanisms by which an infant acquires identity in relation to the universe of signification. In so doing, this psychoanalysis often privileges scenarios in which visual perception has a central function. This emphasis has been exploited by a number of film theorists drawn to psychoanalytic accounts of the spectator as subject.

Take, for example, the pre-Oedipal, narcissistic phase of the development of the ego—what some psychoanalytic theorists might call the primary identification against which all subsequent assumptions of identity (secondary identifications) will be measured and at some level found failing by the psyche. To mark the acquisition of that narcissistic sense of self, Lacan privileges the phenomenon of a six-to eighteen-month-old infant's delight at seeing its own image in a mirror and thereby recognizing its body as a coherent whole. However, Lacan stresses a simultaneous misrecognition of the image by the child, who sees it as visual evidence of his or her own "presence" in entities outside its body. During this "mirror phase," there is a triumphant, joyous experience of full, unthreatened, coherent identity wherein the infant finds its self reflected in its relation to everything in the world. At this stage, the individual exists more or less purely in the imaginary order (which is thus named in part because a certain relation to imagery is central to the description of its effects).

Similarly, the discovery of difference—which for Lacan threatens the imaginary, narcissistic identity of the mirror phase and initiates the individual into the symbolic order—has privileged scenarios that rely on visual perception even in classical psychoanalysis. Important scenarios of encounters with sexual difference in the primal scene (when the child discovers the parents having intercourse) /168/ and the "moment" originating fetishism (when the child "sees" that the mother has no penis and takes this as evidence of the possibility of castration) are founded on the child's misunderstanding of a visual experience of human bodies.

Again, these are only privileged scenarios and cases to be explored for underlying psychical structures. One thing they do register, however, is the early overdevelopment of the visual sense (for psychoanalysis, the scopic drive) on the part of the infant, manifested as a precocious visual curiosity. Vision can therefore be treated as crucial in primary assumptions of identity and in threats against that identity. In that case, defenses against such threats and in the service of secure and stable subjectivity would likely take place in part, at least, in the register of the visual. Thus, visual representation in this account has its own special functions in the ongoing processes of subjectivity, and these could be of central interest to a semiotic investigation of the visual aspects of cinema.

In a more general sense, however, this theoretical framework indicates that all representational processes share certain aspects in their appeals to individuals as subjects. Any representational entity regardless of its material characteristics (whether image, writing, speech, or something else) must include some kind of compensation to the benefit of the continual production of coherent identity as a counter to the constant fact of difference. Of course, there must be distinctions among various modes of signification and hence a specificity in the psychic economy of a given medium's participation in this general process; these are of central importance to any film theory. But it is also of importance to note the general perspective provided by a Lacanian semiotics.

The appeal of representational entities to subjects is explained by the thesis of the mutual imbrication of imaginary and symbolic orders. The imaginary is the realm of an impossible, ideal security of being underlying the pursuit of identity. Identity is continually being constructed against a lack of wholeness, a lack which, measured against the plentitude of identity of primary narcissism, can never be recovered. The symbolic is the regime which perpetually reactivates the threat (always embodying the fact of difference) and provides a means of temporarily overcoming that threat by providing reconfirming but never finalized positionalities in meaning.

Despite Lacan's own stress on the symbolic order as a linguistically organized fact, psychoanalytic conceptions and Lacan's emphasis on the relations between subjective positionality, representational systems and processes, and desire have often been treated by film theorists as a complement to a general semiotics. They have also sometimes been treated as filling in certain gaps in an interpellation theory of ideology. It is certainly true that contradictions between the two latter theories could also be adduced. But we have tried to highlight concerns which both share: an insistence on the importance of representational processes, an emphasis on the category of the subject, a focus on mechanisms of misrecognition seen as inseparable from signification.

Over the past several years, textual operations have often been approached /169/ by film theorists in relation to such issues. Those operations are thus often conceived of as addressing or appealing to a subject (or, more precisely, a psychic entity which works to maintain the status of a self-aware subject over and against the forces which threaten that status). The analysis of how images and sounds construct spectatorial positions has become one of the most significant kinds of investigations in contemporary film theory and criticism. Cinema, groups of films, and individual films are interrogated as sign processes for the ways in which they are implicated in the general, constant processes of constructing social and psychical identity.


[1] There is now a good deal of Lacan's work available in English translation. For film theory, a useful place to begin remains "The mirror stage as fonnative of the function of thc I . . ." in Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (Ncw York: Norton, 1977). Other selections in Ecrits: A Selection of special interest for the discussion below include "The Agency of thc Letter in thc Unconscious or Reason Since Freud" and "The Signification of the Phallus."

[2] For an explication of the Lacanian distinction between "the real" and "reality" in the context of a discussion of cinema and film theory, see Stephen Heath, "Anata mo," Screen (Winter 19760), 17 (4) :49-66

[3] See Jacqueline Rose, "Introduction—11" in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1983), for a careful explication of and commentary on Lacan's conception of the phallus and its relation to desire, e.g. pp. 37-43.