Lacan's first comments on the gaze appear in the first year of his seminar, in reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's phenomenological analysis of "the look." For Sartre, the gaze is that which permits the subject to realize that the Other is also a subject.
When the subject is surprised by the gaze of the Other, the subject is reduced to shame. Lacan does not, at this point, develop his own concept of the gaze, and seems to be in general agreement with Sartre's views on the subject. Lacan is especially taken with Sartre's view that the gaze does not necessarily concern the organ of sight:
Of course what most often manifests a look is the convergence of two ocular globes in my direction. But the look will be given just as well on occasion when there is a rustling of branches, or the sound of a footstep followed by silence, or the slight opening of a shutter, or a light movement of a curtain.
It is only in 1964, with the development of the concept of objet petit a as the cause of desire, that Lacan develops his own theory of the gaze, a theory which is quite distinct from Sartre's. Whereas Sartre had conflated the gaze with the act of looking, Lacan now separates the two; the gaze becomes the object of the act of looking, or, to be more precise, the object of the scopic drive. The gaze is therefore, in Lacan's account, no longer on the side of the subject; it is the gaze of the Other.
And whereas Sartre had conceived of an essential reciprocity between seeing the Other and being-seen-by-him, Lacan now conceives of an antinomic relation between the gaze and the eye: the eye which looks is that of the subject, while the gaze is on the side of the object, and there is no coincidence between the two, since "You never look at me from the place at which I see you." When the subject looks at an object, the object is always already gazing back at the subject, but from a point at which the subject cannot see it. This split between the eye and the gaze is nothing other than the subjective division itself, expressed in the field of vision.
The concept of the gaze was taken up by psychoanalytic film criticism in the 1970s, especially by feminist film critics. However, many of these critics have conflated Lacan's concept of the gaze with the Sartrean concept of the gaze and other ideas on vision such as Foucault's account of panopticism. Much of so-called "Lacanian film theory" is thus the site of great conceptual confusion.
- The fact that the English translators of Sartre and Lacan have used different terms obscures the fact that both use the same term in French - le regard.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, London, Methuen, 1958 . p. 256
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, London, Methuen, 1958 . p. 261
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 215
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, London, Methuen, 1958 . p. 257
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977.
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 103