Project-Being and Semblance

Text: What is a picture? by Jacques Lacan

  • this is typically difficult (and not very precise or logical) of the writing of Lacan
  • he seems to want to analyse the relationship between an image, the representation, the gaze, and the viewer…..
  • Lacan’s diagram suggests that we , The Subject view’s an image which is one part (one vertical that transects the pyramidal diagram representing our vision) of visual field our
  • and reciprocally, the subject is viewed by a reciprocal visual field which represents the gaze
  • This seems to reverse my previous understanding-that the subject gazed at the object. Here the subject becomes itself an image (a picture), when viewed by the gaze , which emanates from where?

(pg 1)

  • So ‘I’ the viewer am visualised or photo-graphed, by the gaze.
  • The representation is both the image signifier and the signified (ie. The saussurian sign)
  • Lacan seems to say that it’s not the partition between the image and that which it represents, but the viewer’s image and the picture of the viewer that he‘s concerned with here.

I’m not sure I see the point of defining the viewer via a gaze of someone who may not exist (ie. the gaze is defined by the viewer’s vision, not another viewer).

  • He now seems to introduce a living observer who holds the gaze-which is ok, and makes the idea viable I think, and say’s that the viewer is defined by the other person (and by extension not through his own vision).
  • This sort of relationship is seen in either reproduction, or death struggle (in fact any meeting of the two which involves one being viewed by the other),
  • the gaze also splits the subject (that which is gazed at) Into two through 1.that which is seen ( ie. the signifier- the surface), and 2. that which it is (the whole person)., and this is important in reproduction- (although as a contrary position we are told that beauty is not skin deep, nor to judge a book by its cover ! )
  •  This outer visible self (the image of another) seems very important to Lacan in human interaction -such as sex

p. 2

  • But, Unlike other animals, ‘Man knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze’. Does this confusing language mean that man can change the ‘outer image’ presented to the other (eg make up, new clothes etc…..) , or that he can change the ‘surface picture’ by presenting his true internal character to the other- via getting to know one another ………



Google Books  (no date) What is a picture? by Jacques Lacan [document] [online] at


The OCA handbook-

  • The image screen seems not to be a visual image screen, but it is ‘like the kind of screen that cuts us off from something, like the screen around a hospital bed’. (Haveland, 2009: 93)

I did not get this idea from Lacan’s text p.93

  • ‘Lacan has called this screen the stain, or the spot, like the blind spot at the centre of our eye. But in this case the blind spot is a result of our cultural conditioning  in which we are taught how to see, what to select and how to achieve a selective blindness.’ (OCA, 2009: 93),

Again this makes real sense, and fits with eg.. a ‘sexist gaze, or a colonialist gaze’- but  surely this is how the subject sees (which is not the gaze!)  not is seen (ie the gaze)??? but I can’t see this argument anywhere in the text or diagram !

  • Lacan is ‘suggesting that the gaze is not what we do to an object but the means by which the object impinges on our consciousness, an act of the object not ourselves’ Haveland, P. (2009) Visual Studies 1 Understannding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts: 93).

Again this seem very rational and an excellent idea……..and I can see that here the gaze is how the object see’s us.


Haveland, P. (2009)  Visual Studies 1 Understanding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts.


Text: The subject-  by Kaja Silverman

  • Lacan has influenced semiotic and psychoanalytic theory by
  • Extending Freud’s theories, returned to Freud’s earlier theories on psychoanalysis (towards the unconscious) rather than later ones (towards the ego), and has linked Freud with Saussure and Levi strauss showing how psychoanalysis can link with semiotics.
  • Lacan’s writing is notoriously difficult, and it (and he himself) have many inconsistencies                                                                                                            (Silverman, 1993:340)
  • This text links Lacan’s  work with broader psychoanalysis and semiotics…..
  • Lacan’s stages of development of the subject consist Birth, territorialisation, mirror stage, acquisition of language and Oedipus stage. All involves some loss.

(Silverman, 1993:341)

  • The first loss happens at birth and is the loss of the mother- by which the subject can never be both male and female. He makes up for this by seeking to develop his (or her) own sexuality to the full, and seeking sexual union with the opposite sex.
  • The second loss comes through a territorialisation of the body. It is initially felt as one with the mother and her love and her body/milk….

(Silverman, 1993:342)

  • But then pleasure starts to differentiate within , through outlets like the mouth, anus, and sex organs (‘erotogenic zones are inscribed and libido is canalized’ ( ref)
  • This differentiation organises bodily powers into drives which will be reinforced culturally later on (by the culture of sexual difference)
  • The child tries to introject structures into itself (through the areas of eroticisation ) as if to replace that which was separated from itself by development or bodily organisation….. mother’s breast, the mother, the opposite sex organ etc…..etcthese are called the objets petit autre and this happens through the imaginary stage
  • Imaginary describes the ‘subject’s experience which is dominated by identification and duality’

(Silverman, 1993:343)

  • The imaginary precedes the symbolic stage, but they do happen simultaneously for a time, and is exemplified by the mirror stage.
  • Between 6 and 18 months the child sees in the mirror himself as an ‘other’ and as an ideal image
  • This recognition is also a ‘misrecognition’, and also a crisis ( the child cannot assimilate the image to itself……nor other structures of ‘loss’ like the breast, genitals etc… the child has ambivalent feelings towards the image.
  • The imaginary order is characterised by this ambivalence in feelings towards these objects
  • Because of the importance of vision in the mirror stage it’s been used to analyse film images wrt the subjects identification with these lost phenomena…..

(Silverman, 1993:344)

  • the mirror stage has similarity to the oedipal phase in that in both the individual feels ambivalence to a ‘ideal representation’ (father figure in case of male Oedipal phase).
  • The mirror stage is imaginary and the oedipal is symbolic, but in reality even the mirror stage has some cultural elements……. Eg…an ‘ideal’ image must h reside in a culture of values, and even then we may have cultural influences such as ‘boys’ clothes v ‘girls clothes’ etc….
  • The resolution of the ambivalence of the imaginary order can only come within the symbolic order.
  • Lacan, like Saussure allows for relational meaning only within a closed system, but says this can only be a closed system of signifiers
  • ‘meaning emerges as a result of the play of differences within a closed system’ (Silverman, 1993: 345)


  • Lacan ‘insists’ on the ‘linguistic status of the signifier’, but sometimes allows a more loose concept, with a combination of signifier and signified within the signifier….. that the ‘concept ‘insists’ within the form or ‘letter’’ (Silverman, 1993:346)
  • What Lacan seems to require from this definition of a mixed signifier, is that the signifier is completely separated from the real object, but may have some concepts carried within it…….
  • For Lacan, Many other things can assume signification other than language (rituals, diets, neuroses….)… fact the symbolic world gives man meaning … and ‘symbols….envelop the life of man in a network so total………..’ (Lacan quoted in Silverman, 1993: 346)…..

This section on symbols which entwine us in a matrix from cradle to grave, sounds very much like Althusser’s ideology  which seems to do the same.

  • Language is the most important Signification system, and all others can occur only with the help of language( to define them?), and when the acquisition of language has occurred in the subject.

(Silverman, 1993:346)

  • Lacan distinguishes in language a signifier that is never converted back into the ‘real’ (like for example indexical and iconic symbols are). These are conventional symbols.

So acquisition of language is a massive part of the construction of a reality which is not really real……?

  • In the symbolic order, and when language has been learnt, this language completely separates both the subject from it s own ‘being’ and the subject from the phenomena around it from reality.
  • The linguistic structure cannot now satisfy the body’s needs-it severs them, but it nevertheless ‘determines its entire cultural existence’ . (causing anxiety?)
  • Lacan believes that this linguistic ‘coercion’ is not just in preconscious thought (as Freud believes), but also in unconscious (subconscious) thought (as Freud does not believe)
  • Lacan’s unconscious is a signifying network, and is split off from the conscious and the drives,

(Silverman, 1993:347)

  • unlike Freud’s which is synonymous with the id -containing the drives. Lacan’s signifying network is more like Freud’s unconscious in ‘the interpretation of dreams’


eg collections of relationships between signifiers and signifieds????

  •  The entrance into the symbolic order and the unconscious is made through a signifying event made of a unary and a binary signifier
  • A story by \freud is told, of a boy who only ever throws away his toys -to bring them back… never playing in a traditional way. For Freud this represents a reduction of the anxiety of his mum’s absences, but for Lacan it is a presentation of his numerous personal separations through development….

(Silverman, 1993:348)

  • Lacan believes the toys are objets petit a

(Silverman, 1993:349)

  • The tale of the little boy , his toys and the words ‘fort’ and ‘da’ (gone and here), show the Lacanian dominance of language over the drives, and is a signifying event which brings about the subconscious.
  • Within the tale the boy enters subconscious, inaugurates ‘meaning’ and the loss of the real, and enters the symbolic stage- he also inaugurates desire- which is connected to the separation and lack which the subject feels…..


(eg.s ? there are many examples) that separation that comes from acquisition of language (two pronged) , separation of the objets petit a, ………..

  • These desires are first found in the mirror stage (imaginary and symbolic orders coexist for a time ), and then are directed towards the ideal parents relationship….
  • This Oedipus complex continues to be a form of anxiety, and the subject ‘discovers itself to be castrated’ (Silverman, 1993:350)
  • We now have the desires of the subject defined by the symbolic, and the family/parents is central to the symbolism.

(Silverman, 1993:350)

  • the symbolic order connects to the idea of cultural control, which Levi Strauss likened/defined via the regulatory role of the ‘incest taboo’ on the (unregulated ) desire to copulate (with anyone!).
  • This taboo sets up the structure of society wrt to sexual relationships, which are the central currency .
  • This structure of kinship and marriage determines all other rules in society Strauss says….inc. attitudes, power distributions, and ‘legal and economic status’(Silverman, 1993:351)
  • Strauss believes language, like the cultural structure, allows everyone to ‘inhabit the same psychic territory, and regiments the exchanges which take place between them’. (Silverman, 1993:351), but language is more powerful and stable in this respect.

Is there a subtle link here between language in society and the idea of computer software as ideology? One can only carry out actions on a computer that are programmed within it, and one behaves in society mainly (maybe not exclusively) in accordance to ways we can describe with language……..This is language as ideology… also relates to the idea of  is our world defined by words or are words defined by our world ???…ie…. how much (what proportion) of meaning is language!!

  • Lacan considers that the Oedipus stage and language are virtually synonymous, because one only knows how to act within the structure of society (and the incest taboo ) via being relative to terms like father and mother……

(Silverman, 1993:351)

  • The family is a ‘set of symbolic relations’, and mother/father are more cultural than biological…..
  • The Lacanian discourse of the family is discussed
  • Lacan considers the sex differences very differently from Freud. Freud’s penis, is replaced by Lacan’s phallus, which is essentially everything that is opposed to ‘Lacan’s Lack’ (ie. Whatever the being is separated from in life….)  ie. It is a signifier

(Silverman, 1993:352)

  • The phallus though is also a signifier of the privileges which male subjects receive and to which females are denied in patriarchal society.
  • The penis representing the actual father can never live up to the phallus which is the ‘signifier’- of the symbolic father’- which is not only coding patriarchal contents, but also cultural systems that relate to it…. Law, education, technological, medical etc…… (all of which are patriarchal to an extent).
  • This is a very complicated text, and the author mentions the ‘formulation’ of Lacan has problems, including the problem that female subjectivity can be misunderstood, or understood in different ways by readers/listeners………

(Silverman, 1993:353)

  • although Lacan’s phallus is not the penis, in some ways his ideas suggest that it is….. ‘the phallus somehow mirrors or represents the penis’ (Silverman, 1993:354)
  • the final pages seem to be a summary of the complex argument, and I will return to them shortly….to hopefully clarify the ideas in the text….

(Silverman, 1993:354-5)


Silverman , K (1999). ‘The subject’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p. 340-355


…in your BLOG
1.Look up Schrödinger’s cat. Make a brief summary of the theory.


  • Erwin Schrodinger was a physicist
  • In 1935 he proposed a thought experiment and called it the Schrodinger’s cat Paradox.
  • The paradox was a comment on  the interpretation of quantum theory by some scientists
  • We have a cat, some radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a hammer, and some poison in a bottle, all in a box.
  • As the substance decays the hammer breaks the bottle and the cat dies due to the poison.
  • In quantum theory- the motion of very small subatomic particles (responsible for the decay in this experiment) is not under the influence of Newtonian laws, they are described by a wave function, whereby they can be in a number of places , described by different probabilities at any time. Consequently the decay of the substance is random and cannot be predicted.
  • so unobserved, you must say that the particle can be doing any of the possible things, and that the decay is happening at different rates. Consequently, the cat may also be either alive or dead to an extent, and thus is both alive and dead to an extent.
  • But when observed, the cat is either one or the other (it can’t be both), and this is the same with the particle- it can’t be physically in two places at the same time!!

(Nationalgeographic, 2013)

  • The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory said that the particle exists in all states simultaneously until observed- Schrödinger used his paradox  to highlight the limits of this interpretation in practice (Telegraph, 2013).

2. In Blade Runner there are a number of instances of reference to Lacan’s version of the gaze. Think of the blimp with its lights and sayings about the off-world colonies. Think of the Japanese woman on the billboard. They remind us that we are always being seen and the structure of seeing. Other figures fit into this category: the owl, the eye at the opening of the film, perhaps even Tyrell’s glasses.

Find six other examples of this in film, TV or other imagery and annotate and make notes on your chosen examples and explain how they fit in with Lacan’s ideas.


1.     The Double Life of Veronique.


Fig. 1 The Double life of Veronique (1991)

 ·        The film looks at the lives of 2 almost identical women (played by Irene Jacob), one who lives in Poland, the other in France. 

·        It reflects the Director Kieslowski’s feelings about his native Poland and his adopted France.

 ·        Kieslowski’s main themes include the role of chance, and the possibility of alternate histories   in our lives.

  • The Polish woman, a singer, has an unfaithful lover, and dies tragically during her first solo concert. Immediately afterwards, certain elements of this woman become a part of the French woman, who is a music teacher.

This has connections with Schodringer’s cat- who has two destinies (dead or alive) , defined by chance, and can (before observation) be said to be living both at once.

The film could also be analysed In relation to Lacan’s view that the viewer  (subject) understands what he sees, as if he is himself gazed at by the object, through a semi-permeable veil or stain, and picks up only the visual ideas that he is conditioned to  detect.

 For example, using a small extension of the stain idea,  the two women are the same, and are viewed through the stain. The Polish singer is viewed through the stain representing just those life conditions she was born into- a matter of biological, spatial and temporal chance.  We the viewer see her life through the prism of these chance happenings and register a life of communism, unhappy love, and tragic early death.  Alternatively seen through the stain of a different set of chance factors, we view the French music teacher, whose life takes a different course. The arbitrariness of life, and thus the ‘stain’ is made obvious.

Kieslowski is well known for his use of colours (eg. The ‘Colours’ trilogy Red/White/Blue) and using colour filters in his films. Perhaps this  physically references  Lacan’s idea of the filter which exists between all subjects and the objects gaze.

2. Shallow Hal.

shallow hal

Fig. 2 Shallow Hall (2001)

  • Hal and his friend only are only attracted to physically beautiful girls.
  • Hal is hypnotised by a life Guru and starts to see the inner beauty within Girls. He meets Rosemary- who is very fat, and falls in love with her inner self. He also finds her externally beautiful (symbolised here by an actual physical slimness).

This is what often happens when we fall in love- we need to see the inner beauty, before we see the outer beauty. This is what makes Love and sex such a minefield.

  • Rosemary falls for Hal too, but the Guru is persuaded to reverse the spell, as his friend thinks he’s been dishonest to Hal. Once the spell is reversed Hal avoids Rosemary, who is left heartbroken. However through an incident in a hospital, Hal becomes aware that he can still truly see the beauty within and without people. He contacts Rosemary again and they are reconciled.

Of course we can see that here  Rosemary simultaneously reflects both the Saussurian signifier- the conventionally overweight and unattractive Rosemary, and the Saussurian Sign -the truly beautiful, more complex Rosemary, and this distinction is important to the Lacanian gaze (Lacan, p. 2).

But in Lacanian terms the gaze of the camera here is  akin to the gaze of Rosemary, and we too are being invited to look at the character development of Hal throughout the film. What bits of Hal are becoming more and less visible to Rosemary as they pass through the invisible stain which separates her gaze? The view of the film viewer and what he sees, and any lessons learnt,  is perhaps the most important view here.

In terms of the Mulveyian analysis of gaze (Mulvey, 1999), we are not interested in the viewer’s, or Hal’s active (scopophilic) gaze at Rosemary. We are being asked whether we identify with the more narcissistic gaze within ourself- do we identify with Hal’s character and how do we evaluate it in terms of our own desires….

3. Persona.

persona5 (1)

Fig. 3 Persona (1966)

  • An actress, Elisabet is admitted to hospital- she does not talk and is almost catatonic. She is assigned to a nurse, Alma.  They both retreat to a house owned by an administrator, and the drama plays out.
  • Alma begins to talk more and more to the silent Elisabet about her life, her anxieties re. her fiancé and an abortion she had when she was younger………she finds it therapeutic. Then she discovers that Elisabet has been writing to others about details of Alma, and becomes furious.
  • Later Elisabet’s husband arrives and mistakes Alma for her, and they make love. Alma now narrates Elisabet’s back story-that she also has had a child, but she did not love it and resented its imposition on her acting career.
  • The two women seem increasingly alike…. And Alma reacts against this. She also finds that Elisabet’s silence is dishonest. She, Alma, is not like her, she is not selfish… …. ‘I’m not like you. I don’t feel like you. I’m not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler. I’m just here to help  you’.
  • Elisabet reaches a completely catatonic state………

 These two women are both similar and different. On the outside they are different-  when viewed through the Lacanian gaze and the veil which allows only the surface details to be visible.

Each could be both subject and object of the other, and  gazed at by the other. However, overwhelmingly in the film, Alma is the aggressor, the one who does not see or understand the other- her complexities, her ‘more than skin deep’ ness- what the hidden story is.  So we are encouraged to look at her as the viewed- from Elisabet’s eyes, but more importantly  how she measures up through our own gaze.

We can see that through a more penetrating gaze,  with the story filled out a little, and with a different viewpoint, that Alma is not the Good, and Elisabet not the bad. Nothing is ever quite this black and white. Alma may be in a position of power and ‘goodness’-the nurse, but she is judgemental, aggressive, and lacks any self-criticism- she is insecure, makes love to Elisabet’s husband, and feels that her abortion was OK, but Elisabet’s feelings for her son were not.

I view the 2 women as very similar, each had broadly similar sorts of  events occurring, but reacted in different ways. Through a  veil which allows for understanding and respect, I view both women as similar, and equal. Bergman shows how similar the women may really be  by splitting the screen and  moulding half of each actresses face into one- and the effect is very striking (fig. 3).  

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone (2001)

  • The ‘mirror of erised’ has an inscription which read backwards states ‘ I show not yourself but your heart’s desire’ (fig. 4 )
  • Harry looks into the mirror and sees his lost parents who he can never be reunited with.
  • Dumbledore knows that if Harry stares too much into the mirror, his desire for things he cannot have will interfere with his ability to make a success of the life he can have.




fig. 4 The mirror of erised (2017)

5.  A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,

 A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-82 (oil on canvas)

fig. 5 A bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-2)

·        This painting by Manet precedes Lacan’s ideas about images.

·        However the painting has received attention for its unrealistic depiction of images in the mirror

·        The girl and the (man?) she serves do not seem to be shown as they ought

·        We should see the girl’s behind view in the mirror if we the viewer face her at the bar

·        If the viewer is a Man about to be served, we should see his reflection too.

·        Perhaps this is symbolic- does Manet want to show that :

·        the man does not see the woman (through a stain similar to Lacan’s)- he wants to pick up a prostitute, and sees nothing of the true woman- just an outside shell which he may or my not think is acceptable to have sex with (many of the barmaids were also sex workers).

·        the girl (or decent society ?) does not see the man  because she believes he is  a ‘punter’ and only after sex 

6. What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me (1938)

What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, 1938 (oil on canvas)

Fig. 6 What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me (1938)

  • Lacan believed that the gaze splits the subject (that which is gazed at) into two – that which is seen ( ie. the signifier- the surface), and 2. that which it is (the whole person).
  • Here we may consider Kahlo being viewed by the gaze which is represented by the water, or the picture viewer, or herself.
  • We can see some obvious reflections of her outer surface- eg. her toes and parts of her legs.
  • But we also see reflections of the inner person (the signified). In Kahlo’s case this was a very autobiographical inner self. We see aspects of her life such as her parents, her homeland, her culture, and the USA (which she visited later in life with exhibitions).


Nationalgeographic (2013) The physics behind the Schrodinger’s cat experiment. [online] at [accessed 27 Oct 2017].

Telegraph (2013) Schrodinger’s-Cat-explained [online] at [accessed 27 Oct 2017].


Fig. 1   Criterion, The Double |Life of Veronique (1991) [photograph] [online at] [accessed 5th November 2017]

Fig. 2  imdb.  Shallow Hall  (2001) [photograph] [online at ] [accessed 5th November 2017] [accessed 5th November 2017]

Fig. 3  Claudiocolombo. Persona (1966)  [photograph] at [accessed 5th November 2017]

Fig. 4 Pottermore the mirror of erised (2017) [illustration] [online at] [accessed 5th November 2017]

Fig. 5   Manet, E.  A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-82)  (oil on canvas) [online at] [accessed 5th November 2017]

Fig. 6 Kahlo, F. What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me (1938) (oil on canvas) [online at] [accessed 5th November 2017]