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Jacques Lacan

Jean-Paul Sartre

Lacan's first omments on the gaze appear in the first year of his seminar, in reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's phenomenological analysis of "the look."[1]

For Sartre, the gaze is that which permits the subject to realize that the Other is also a subject.

My fundamental connection with the Other-as-subject must be able to be referred back to my permanent possibility of being seen by the Other.[2]

When the subject is surprised by the gaze of the Other, the subject is reduced to shame.[3]

Lacan does not, at this point, develop his own concept of the gaze, and seems to be in general agreemtn with [[Sartre]s views on the subject.[4]

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 rustlin go 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.[5]

New Concept of the Gaze

It is only in 1964, with the development of the concept of objet petit a as the casue of desire, that Lacan devlops his own theory of the gaze, a theory which is quite distinct from Sartre's.[6]

Whereas Sartre had confalted 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 seing 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."[7]

When the subject looks at an object, the object is always already gazing back at the subjet, but from apoitn 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 waken up by psychoanalytic film criticism in the 1970s (e.g. MEtz. 1975), especially by feminist film critics.

However, many of these critics have confalted Lacan's concept of the gaze with the Sartean concept of the gaze and other dieas on vision such as Foucault's account of panopticism.

Much of so-called "Lacanian film theory" is thus the site of great conceptual confusion.

See Also


  1. 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.
  2. Sartre. 1943. p.256
  3. {{Sartre. 1943. p.261
  4. 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
  5. Sartre. 1943. p.257
  6. Lacan, Jacques. 1964a.
  7. 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

"The look," also translated as "the gaze," refers to the activity of intentionally directing one's vision toward something. It implies the anticipation of an image and a narrowing of the visual field.

With his prior experience with the gaze in hypnosis and with his invention of the analytic couch, Freud showed that he was acutely aware of the important axis that ran from the eye of the analyst to the look of the analysand and of the perceptual asymmetry that resulted from it. He openly declared that he could not bear to spend his entire working day being stared at by the patients he was treating. Contrary to Jean Martin Charcot, he dispensed with the omnipotent look in treatment and even came to consider it a kind of mistake. By characterizing the look as an element of the scopic drive, he opened the way to a series of reflections preserved in his metapsychology, most notably, his study of the voyeur/exhibitionist opposition.

Referring to the "split" between the look and vision, Jacques Lacan, following up on his work with the optical schema of the inverted bouquet as reflected in a mirror, made the look the object of the scopic drive, developing a theory that "most completely eludes the term castration" (Lacan, p. 78). In neurosis, the other's look is most often experienced by the subject with an "uncanny" feeling. In psychosis, the look can amount to persecution leading to a breakdown if it comes to be confused with its source, the eye. And finally, the look, focused on sex, plays an essential role in the genealogy of perversions.

What does "the look" look for? And what is looked at? For Lacan, the phallus is what is looked for, and castration is what is found. The phallic reaction, in the form of erection or a petrified look, is a response to fear of castration. For the subject, the scopic drive is expressed by the appearance or disappearance of the look. From that point on, the subject will use what is supposedly the other's look to construct the fantasy of castration and to make that fantasy seem possible: "I see from only one point," Lacan said, "but in my existence I am looked at from all sides" (1978, p. 72). The myth of Medusa shows that individuals use protective images to try to defend themselves against erection or petrifaction by the other's look.

Donald Winnicott, in his reflections on why the baby's look turns toward the mother's face, and Fran-çoise Dolto, by insisting that the look plays an important role in symbolizing the difference between boys and girls, both emphasized the structuring role of visual activity. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, psychoanalytic research attempts to draw a distinction between the drives of seeing and looking. In the treatment of perversions, the field of the look is considered in its relation to speech. The look thus constitutes an organizational schema for the person, as is shown by its overdetermination in various cultures in ways that cut across the fields of the visible and the invisible, such as the "evil eye," a voracious invidious look.


See also: Breastfeeding; Cinema criticism; Face-to-face situation; Fascination; Hypnosis; Identificatory project; Mirror stage; Modesty; Object a; Optical schema; Psychoanalytic treatment; Psychogenic blindness; Relaxation psychotherapy; Reversal into the opposite; Self-consciousness; Visual; Visual arts and psychoanalysis; Voyeurism. Bibliography

   * Dolto, Françoise. (1984). L'image inconsciente du corps. Paris: Seuil.
   * Hirt, Jean-Michel. (1993). Le miroir du prophète: Psychanalyse et Islam. Paris: Grasset.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 9: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1964)
   * Winnicott, Donald. (1989). Mirror-role of mother and family in child development. In his Playing and reality. New York: Routledge.


The Gaze in Lacan refers to the uncanny sense that the object of our eye's look or glance is somehow looking back at us, a feeling that affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye's look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds the meaning structures of the symbolic order. Lacan's favorite example for the Gaze is Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (pictured here). When you look at the painting, it at first gives you a sense that you are in control of your look; however, you then notice a blot at the bottom of the canvas, which you can only make out if you look at the painting from the side, from which point you can make out that the blot is, in fact, a skull staring back at you. By having the object of our eye's look look back at us, we are reminded of our own lack, of the fact that the symbolic order is separated only by a fragile border from the materiality of the Real. The symbols of power in Holbein's painting (wealth, power, ambition) are thus completely undercut. The magical floating object "reflects our own nothingness, in the figure of the death's head" (Lacan, Four Fundamental 92). See the Lacan module on the Gaze.


The concept of gaze (often also called the gaze or, in French, le regard), in analysing visual media, is one that deals with how an audience views other people presented. The concept of the gaze became popular with the rise of postmodern philosophy and social theory and was first discussed by 1960s French intellectuals, namely Foucault's description of the medical gaze and Lacan's analysis of the gaze's role in the mirror stage development of the human psyche. This concept is extended in the framework of feminist theory, where it can deal with how men look at women, how women look at themselves and other women, and the effects surrounding this.

Forms of gaze

The gaze can be characterized by who is doing the looking:

  • the spectator's gaze: the spectator who is viewing the text. This is often us, the audience of a certain text,
  • intra-diegetic gaze, where one person depicted in the text who is looking at another person or object in the text, such as another character looking at another,
  • extra-diegetic gaze, where the person depicted in the text looks at the spectator, such as an aside, or an acknowledgement of the fourth wall, or
  • the camera's gaze, which is the gaze of the camera or the director's gaze.

These are not the only forms of gaze. Other forms include the gaze of an audience within a "text within the text", such as Lisa Simpson and Bart Simpson watching the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons, or editorial gaze, whereby a certain aspect of the text is given emphasis, such as in photography, where a caption or a cropping of an image depicting one thing can emphasize a completely different idea.

Other theorists such as Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen provide the idea of the gaze as a relationship between offering and demanding gaze: indirect gaze is an offer by the spectator, where we initiate the gaze, and the subject is not aware of this, and direct gaze is a demand by the subject, who looks at us, demanding our gaze.

Gaze can also be further categorized into the direction of the gaze, where the subjects are looking at each other, apart, at the same object, or where one is gazing at another who is gazing at something else.

Effects of gaze

Gazing and seeing someone gaze upon another provides us with a lot of information about our relationship to the subjects, or the relationships between the subjects upon whom we gaze, or the situation in which the subjects are doing the gazing.

The mutuality of the gaze can reflect power structure, or the nature of a relationship between the subjects, as proposed by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, where this "tell[s] us who has the right and/or need to look at whom".

Gazing can often reflect emotion without speech - in Western culture, continued staring upon another can be quite unsettling upon the subject.

Although it may appear that "gaze" is merely looking at, Jonathan Schroeder tells us that "it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze". The gaze characterizes and displays the relationships between the subjects by looking.

This idea forms a basis of feminist analysis of texts.

Gaze and feminist theory

The gaze is used in feminist theory as a means to demonstrate power asymmetries by what is termed male gaze, whereby a man gazes at a woman. Such feminist theorists posit that since it is almost always the female who is being gazed upon by the male, the man exhibits power over the woman.

This form of gaze can be the sexual gaze by a man towards a woman (so called "taking a pass"), or the gazing of an image of a woman in some text or in the media. Laura Mulvey, identifies the action of possessing a gaze as being an intrinsically male (the "male gaze"), and identifies the action of being gazed upon with the female. This harks back to binaries of male/active, female/passive.

This idea of power relationships within the gaze can be continued to analyse gendered power relationships in the depictions of women in advertising. Some advertising presents women in a sexual manner, and it is argued that this degrades women because of the power that the gaze provides for heterosexual men viewing these advertisements. Furthermore, Erving Goffman in Gender Advertisements describes that in his study the placement of men was higher than that of women in an advertisement. This positioning forces the gaze asymmetrically, the male must look down to the woman, and the female up to the man.

Responses to "male gaze"

Male gaze in relation to feminist theory presents asymmetrical gaze as a means of exhibiting an asymmetrical power relationship, that is, the male gazing upon a female renders the female having an unwanted gaze upon her. However, this may not necessarily be the case; many societies have women who enjoy being gazed upon, models and beauty pageants in Western society for example, have women who are willing to be gazed upon. Some second-wave feminist viewpoints would argue whether the women are actually willing or not. Women may be merely seeking to conform to the hegemonic norms constructed to the benefit of male interests that further underline the power of the male gaze. Evolutionary biological explanations for the male gaze also exist.

The question of whether a female gaze exists in contrast to the male one arises naturally in considering the so-called male gaze. Mulvey, the originator of the phrase "male gaze", argues that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze...". Nalini Paul describes Wide Sargasso Sea, where the character Antoinette views Rochester and places a garland upon him to appear as a hero, and "Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus he rejects it by removing the garland and crushing the flowers."

In the perspective of male gaze as merely possessing a gaze, the position of a female possessing the gaze is then the female assuming the male gaze. Eva-Maria Jacobsson supports this by describing a "female gaze" as "a mere cross identification with masculinity".

However, disregarding the viewpoint of gendered possession of gaze as proposed by Mulvey above, there is a lot of evidence to support a view of a female gaze, an objectification of men in some texts, such as in some advertisements and teenage magazines. The view that men are somehow reluctant to be gazed upon is also not necessarily supported, for example, at an exhibition called The Female Gaze, where female artists study the male form, Therese Mulligan mentioned "To get these men who had leered at her on the street to strike these poses was amazing. And you could tell that they loved being looked at by her. These guys aren't attractive, but they sure think they are."

The gaze can also be directed toward members of the same gender for several reasons, not all of which are sexual, such as in comparison of body image or in clothing.

Gaze and psychology

Jacques Lacan, early and influential theorist into child development, found the concept of the gaze important in what he termed "the mirror stage", whereupon children gaze upon their own image and present themselves as the ideal ego.


  • Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory - see External links.
  • Jacobsson, Eva-Maria: A Female Gaze? (1999) - see External links
  • Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen: Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. (1996)
  • Lutz, Catherine & Jane Collins: The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic. (1994)
  • Mulvey, Laura: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975, 1992)
  • Notes on The Gaze (1998) - see External links.
  • Paul, Nalini: The Female Gaze - see External links
  • Schroeder, Jonathan E: Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research.

See also

External links

Kid A In Alphabet Land

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Kid A In Alphabet Land Gouges Another Gruesome Gorgon - The Ghoulish Gaze!

Kid A In Alphabet Land

Act · Blot · Commodity-fetish · Death Drive · Ego-ideal · Father · Gaze · Hysteric · Imaginary · Jouissance · Kapital · Letter · Mirror Stage · Name · Other · Phallus · Qua · Real · Super Signifier · Thing · Unheimlich · Voice · Woman · Xenophobe · Yew · Z-man