The Politics of the Gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek

By Henry Krips


Joan Copjec accuses orthodox film theory of misrepresenting the Lacanian gaze by assimilating it to Foucauldian panopticon (Copjec 1994: 18–19). Although Copjec is correct that orthodox film theory misrepresents the Lacanian gaze, she, in turn, misrepresents Foucault by choosing to focus exclusively upon those as- pects of his work on the panopticon that have been taken up by orthodox film the- ory (Copjec 1994: 4). In so doing, I argue, Copjec misses key parallels between the Lacanian and Foucauldian concepts of the gaze. More than a narrow academic dispute about how to read Foucault and Lacan, this debate has wider political sig- nificance. In particular, using Slavoj Žižek’s work, I show that a correct account of the panoptic gaze leads us to rethink the question of how to oppose modern techniques of surveillance.

Keywords: Film theory, the gaze, Lacan, Foucault, Copjec, Žižek.

Krips, Henry: ”The Politics of the Gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek”, Culture Unbound, Volume 2, 2010: 91–102. Hosted by Linköping University Electronic Press:


In her book Read My Desire, Joan Copjec launches an ambitious criticism of film theory (by which she means orthodox 1970s psychoanalytic film theory associated with Mulvey, Metz et al.). Film theory, she argues, misunderstands the Lacanian gaze in Foucauldian terms (Copjec 1994: 19). To be specific, she asserts that, while claiming Lacanian roots, film theory draws its concept of the cinematic gaze from the panoptic gaze that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish: “My argument,” she says, “is that film theory operated a kind of ‘Foucauldiniza- tion’ of Lacanian theory” (Copjec 1994: 19).

In this article I argue that Copjec or at least the film theory from which she draws her account of Foucault, misrepresents his account of the panopticon. In particular, I argue that Foucault’s concept of the panoptic gaze has more in com- mon with Lacan’s concept of the gaze than Copjec allows. This criticism of Cop- jec is not meant as a defense of film theory, however. On the contrary, I conclude that although film theorists are correct to note the similarities between the Fou- cauldian and Lacanian gazes, they do so only by misrepresenting both of them. More than a narrow academic dispute about how to read Foucault and Lacan, this debate has wider political significance. In particular, using the work of Slavoj Žižek, I show that a correct, more Lacanian account of the panoptic gaze leads us to rethink the question of how to oppose modern techniques of surveillance.

Copjec on the Lacanian Gaze

Copjec illustrates the Lacanian gaze by an autobiographical story that Lacan tells about his youthful encounter with a Breton fisherman:

I was in my early twenties…and at the time, of course, being a young intellectual, I wanted desperately to get away, see something different, throw myself into some- thing practical….One day, I was on a small boat with a few people from a family of fishermen….as we were waiting for the moment to pull in the nets, an individual known as Petit-Jean…pointed out to me something floating on the surface of the waves. It was a small can, a sardine can…It glittered in the sun. And Petit-Jean said to me – You see that can? Do you see it? Well it doesn’t see you (Lacan 1981: 95; Copjec 1994: 30–31).

In Lacan’s little story, the gaze is grounded in a concrete object: a sardine can that sporadically catches the light and blinds the young Lacan. In and of itself the ob- ject is of no significance, a shiny piece of industrial waste floating on the sea. But the physiological discomfort occasioned by the flashes of light from the can blends with and reinforces a qualitatively similar affect in the young Lacan that comes from a quite different source. To be specific, he experiences a feeling of discomfort, which, rather than physiological in origin, is occasioned by a lurking political guilt at his own privileged position in relation to the working class fish- ermen. As a result, the flashes of light bring to the surface, indeed create in the

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young Lacan a palpable and excessive anxiety, even shame, about who he is and what he is doing. (This is what Freud calls “unrealistic anxiety” – an anxiety that is in excess of what its apparent object merits). In short, the discomfort that ac- companies the physiological difficulty that the young Lacan experiences in look- ing at the can contributes to a self-centered anxiety about his identity. This anxi- ety, in turn, is transformed into an experience of being externally scrutinized – an anonymous look from elsewhere by an invisible other before whom the young Lacan is reduced to anxiety and shame.

In Freud’s terms, we may say that the scrutiny that the young Lacan directs outwardly at his surroundings encounters resistance from the blinding light re- flected by the tin can; and as a result the scrutiny “turns around”, that is, reflex- ively turns back upon Lacan, at the same time as it switches from active to passive voice – from “I look” to “I am looked at ”. (Freud, Instincts and Vicissitudes 1997: 92–94). To put it in general terms, because it encounters an uncomfortable resistance, a conscious look that is directed outwards transforms into an self- consciousness that returns to its agent as anxiety in relation to the scrutiny of an externalized anonymous Other. Lacan refers to the latter scrutiny, but also to the object that is its source as “the gaze ”.1

In terms of the example of the sea-faring tin-can, the gaze may be thought of as an external point from which an anxiety provoking look assails the subject. But, and this is crucial, the point in question is definitely not an eye that looks back at the subject, let alone a mirror in which the subject sees himself looking. On the contrary, it is a point of failure in the visual field – in the case of the tin can, a point where perception breaks down and the stuff out of which perceptions are constituted, namely light, becomes visible. Of course, not any such points of fail- ure qualify as a gaze. As Lacan emphasizes, a gaze must also precipitate anxiety (specifically what Freud calls “unrealistic anxiety”) which, in turn, transforms the viewer’s look into a self-directed, passive “being looked at”: “That which is gaze is always a play of light and opacity. It is always that gleam of light…which pre- vents me, at each point, from being a screen”. The gaze, Lacan then adds, “is pre- sented to us only in the form of a strange contingency, symbolic of…the lack that constitutes castration anxiety…It surprises [the viewer]…disturbs him and re- duces him to a feeling of shame” (Lacan 1981: 96, 72–73, 84). More specifically, Lacan points out, the gaze must function as an object around which the exhibition- istic and voyeuristic impulses that constitute the scopic drive turn – in short, the gaze must be an object of the scopic drive, producing not merely anxiety but also pleasure (Lacan 1981: 181–183).

Lacan further elaborates this account of the gaze with a story that he borrows from Sartre:

The gaze that I encounter …is not a seen gaze [that is, not an eye that I see looking at me] but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other…the sound of rustling leaves heard while out hunting…a footstep heard in a corridor…[the gaze exists] not at the level of [a particular visible] other whose gaze surprises the subject looking

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through the keyhole. It is that the other surprises him, the subject, as entirely hidden gaze (Lacan 1981: 84, 82).

Here the gaze corresponds to a point of failure in the field of the visible not be- cause (as in the case of the tin can) it dazzles the eye, but rather because the sub- ject becomes aware of it aurally rather than visually. This story makes the point that, although in some situations a visible object (or at least a source of light) is located in the place from where the gaze emanates, this is by no means the rule. In the case of Sartre’s story, for example, an aural rather than visual object stimu- lates the effects of the gaze. To be specific, “noises off” create recognition that, although there is nothing to be seen, there is something present. Thus by totally non-visual means the subject is brought to recognize that there is a hole, a lack, in his visual field – a something that, because it is present but cannot be seen, func- tions as a point of failure of the visual field.

In terms of these two examples it is possible to understand Lacan’s rather en- igmatic remarks that the gaze is “governed” by “the function of the stain” (Lacan 1981: 74). Since a stain blocks vision rather than offering itself as a thing to be seen, it constitutes a disruption, a point of indeterminacy in the visual field, where the subject fails to see. Of course, just as for Freud not any cigar is a phallic sym- bol, not any stain sustains the function of the gaze. On the contrary, a stain is as- sociated with a gaze only in so far as it precipitates (unrealistic) anxiety but also precipitates the double transformation in the voyeuristic act of looking that Freud describes in Instincts and Vicissitudes, through which the stain becomes an object of the scopic drive: first, a transformation into the “reflexive middle voice” – “I look at myself” – followed by a second transformation into the passive “I am looked at ”.


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