Friday, March 31, 2006


We all fetishise particular parts of the body when we look for a partner. Men and women will emphasise hair colour, or skin colour, or height, or breast size, or sometimes just a particular "look"; none of these characteristics are, in themselves, human. Even though psychoanalytic theories of repressed incestual desires remain largely subjects of ridicule, it is frequently accepted that a man will look for aspects of a woman which resemble those of his mother.

The girl who got on the 29 bus the other afternoon had what I considered nice eyes, hair and skin. So, as you do, I shot her a few passing glances. Not psychotic staring, you understand, just a couple of seconds looking, then a few minutes reading, then another couple of seconds looking, the back to my book etc etc. Before long she caught my eye and we looked at each other for one of those fairly short periods of time that feels like forever. I don't know why she looked back at me, but these extended glances continued until I got off the bus at Camden. Having my gaze returned so intensely made me feel excited, exposed, uneasy and diffident in equal measure. This is precisely what Lacan refers to as "the Gaze".

The Gaze

Our starting point here is that looking is never a meaningless act. It is as symptomatic of the unconscious as speaking or dreaming. Of course, the way that men and women look at each other is partly designated by social relations between the genders. John Berger begins one of his essays in Ways of Seeing thus:

A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but its object is always exterior to the man. By contrast a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura. One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.

We see that the relationship generated by the exchange of gazes on the bus was, in some sense, imbalanced, in spite of the fact that she returned my glances, that it was often my sense of disclosure which broke the exchange of glances, and that (God forbid) she may even have been looking at me for the same reason that I was looking at her.

Why might this be? What causes this imbalance? We have dismissed the notion that looking can ever be meaningless, but it is certainly true that different looks contain different levels of meaning because they are generated by different reactions to different situations and contain different relations of power. An image will provoke us in a certain way because of its imagery content, and because of the ways we have been taught to respond to it.


The Real

The act of looking is first imbued with meaning in early childhood, perhaps between six months and one year of age. Before this time, a child is in complete chaos: it cannot move or communicate independently, it cannot differentiate between itself, other people and the outside world, it does not possess any sense of subjectivity. This state of the world can be seen as the-world-as-not-seen-through-human-eyes. It is the unsubjectivised world, the world without human interventions, and, as such, is the nearest we ever come to what Lacan calls "the Real".

The Imaginary

When the child first sees its own image in a mirror (or encounters other children), it realises that it is, in fact, a separate and coherent entity, and not the bundle of chaos it originally thought it was. In one respect, this will be a joyous epiphany, but it is also inherently alienating since this initial awareness of the self is as an other, and because the child realises that it is separate from everything outside itself. The ego is thus, by definition, alienated and should not be trusted. This should not be surprising: the ego is simply the object of the ultimately more dominating superego and id. When, in Matthew's Gospel, Christ becomes tempted by the Devil, he finds himself in the invidious position of the ego: subject to the demands of moral law and dissolute jouissance.

The image in the mirror becomes elevated to the level of fantasy (what Lacan refers to as the "ideal-I"). Throughout our adult lives we aspire to close the gap between this coherent, complete image and the chaotic self we feel internally. This estrangement of the ego from the rest of the psyche never leaves us - hence the frequent feeling of surprise when one sees oneself in the mirror.

One analysand recalled looking at a photograph and seeing a male figure in the background. The man saw that this figure, despite not being the subject of the photo, had a presence which pervaded the image. He was fascinated by this figure, simultaneously venerating and envying him. It was only after much scrutiny that he realised the figure was, in fact, himself in a scene from several years ago. His initial response to this realisation was relief, but it very quickly returned to disappointment. In the sense that we aspire to, and yet resent the idealisation of, our "ideal-I", we have both a sadistic and masochistic attitude towards ourselves.

The Symbolic

After the Mirror Stage come the Oedipus and Castration Complexes. Like Freud, Lacan says that to achieve "normal" adult sexuality, we must accept that we cannot have our mother. Freud says that this acceptance must come about by the intervention of the father, who lets the child know that it cannot have its mother, but reassures it that one day it will be able to have its own love object. Lacan agrees with this, but takes it further: the intervention of the father also happens at a social level. We learn laws, social conventions etc which permit and prohibit certain behaviours, especially those relating to sex. These social rules are what Lacan calls the "Big Other" (equivalent to what Althusser calls "ideological states apparatuses") and our subsumation into the "Big Other" is produced by the intervention of the "Name of the Father" - not a literal father, but a kind of paternalistic-tyannical social code.

The "Name of the Father" coincides with the learning of language (around 2-4 years old) which launches us into the Symbolic Order. Lacan's great insight is that the acquisition of language actually limits our communication. If there is no language there is, by definition, nothing that cannot be communicated. Language, with its rules and structures, is incapable of expressing many human thoughts, and it is certainly not capable of communicating the truth of subjectivity. The biggest mistake a person in a relationship can make is to ask his partner how much she loves him - and if he does, she must refuse to reply. Language cannot express love and any attempt to do so will limit one's love, and give it parameters.

So by around the time we start primary school, we have entered both the Imaginary and the Symbolic Orders. At this point, we are really quite ready to embark on any sexual adventure, except for the fact that our anatomy is not ready. Shortly after this point (and perhaps for that reason) our sexuality goes underground until we hit puberty.

Lack and Loss

The effects of living in both the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders are that we aspire to be like the fantasised "ideal-I" of ourselves, but also that our desires are created and kept in check by the society we live in. So, for example, the boy or girl we choose as our partner acts as a mirror for our fantasy image of ourselves. This is why falling in love is fundamentally narcissistic. The effects of entering the Symbolic Order are different for men and women, however. In accepting his own inadequacy, and by accepting the dictates of society, the man is able to realise his sexual desires (what Lacan calls "reaching the phallus"), but his very acceptance of these dictates means his pursuit of sex will be in some way limited. Women do not lose anything (anatomically or socially) through the Castration process (because they do not have a penis / Penis in the first place). Thus, their pursuit of sex will be less constrained by the world around them: they will, in Lacanian terms, be freer in their jouissance, but because reaching the phallus (which, by the way, is symbolic and thus applies both to men and women) entails an acceptance of loss, they will never reach the phallus to the same extent as men.


Let's return to the girl on the bus and imagine the following scenario:

What if, upon answering her mobile phone, I had discovered that she had a particularly braying voice? What if the Mona Lisa had a speech defect? Why is David Beckham attractive so long as he keeps his mouth shut? Beckham is instructive here, because actually he remains attractive even when he does speak, precisely because of what he does. As John Berger implies, Beckham's phallic pull comes from his talents as a footballer. It is difficult to imagine a male sex symbol who would be attractive solely for the way he looks. Female sex symbols are frequently models; male sex symbols never are. Our perception of men is that their phallic power comes from their place in the Symbolic Order as much as (if not more than) in the Imaginary Order.

We have implied that the phallus (by definition, since it is taken away from the infant) is incomplete, and that men and women need to find mates who complement each other and complete the phallus. But since we exist in both the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders, the phallus becomes, in a sense, both real and Real. Which means that, whatever the relationship between me and the girl on the 29 bus, we were both predetermined to be reticent about communicating to each other. But perhaps that's a good thing; after all, if communicating can only tarnish the Real of love, perhaps such matters are better left unspoken.


Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Very interesting stuff, whether it strays from materialist dialectic or not.

More analysis of Lacan & Zizek, please. Don't be kind. Don't pull punches. I want these fukkers on the couch. Strapped down or otherwise.

10:46 PM  

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