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Jacques Lacan: Giving All the Right Signs

posted on 2023-05-22, 16:58 authored by Dominic LennardDominic Lennard

Much of the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) focuses on modes of looking. Lacan dissects how one looks at potential romantic partners; how one understands visual impressions of one's own body; how one is placed in the world as an "object" that is subject to the gaze of others. Arguably his most significant contribution to psychoanalysts is his theory that independent subjectivity is founded partly via one's first experience of seeing oneself in a mirror, a moment that conveys the impression of a distinct and autonomous "self": in Lacan's hypothesis, the infant is thrilled and obsessed by a kind of "screened" image. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Lacan has been of particular interest to scholars of cinema.

Lacan seems naturally to offer us a vocabulary of ideas for interpreting the behavior and deep motives of filmic characters. His ideas have also proven useful more broadly in analyses of cinema's representations as manifestations of primal psychological conflict or fixation, and in discussions of how film images reinforce dominant gender roles. Drawing on the "Mirror Stage" of human development, Christian Metz has argued that cinema's representations provide an image of oneself that repairs the disunity that afflicts one's most primal experience of the body. Focusing more directly on gender relations, Laura Mulvey influentially applied to cinema Lacan's notion of the "gaze," a mode of spectatorship in which the viewer effectively looks for signs that confirm his or her position within a structure of "normative" sexual roles. The usefulness of UI.Can's theories to filmic analysis has been demonstrated more recently in the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose work often emphasizes what remains outside a World of meaningful objects and associations, what cannot be definitively structured by or understood through "reality" as we know it (see for instance his documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema [2006]). Taken as a whole, Lacanian Psychoanalytic approaches often draw attention to the conflict between the primal forces of one's earliest "self" and the requirements of "identity" in a broader social world.

Building explicitly on the work of Sigmund Freud, Lacan considered himself a Freudian; yet whereas Freud's work was remarkably accessible (partly in an attempt to legitimize the controversial discipline of psychoanalysis), La.can's writing style is notoriously obscure. Elizabeth Grosz refers to Lacan's writing as "stretching terms to the limits of coherence, creating a text that is difficult to enter and ultimately impossible to master". The difficulty of Lacan's concepts and the complex network of ideas and traditions in which they are enmeshed lead me to focus on a few core ideas in necessarily brief but-I hope-clear and useful detail. First I will address the Mirror Stage of human development; then three "orders" of experience-Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real-that dominate Lacanian psychoanalysis; and lastly Lacan's account of heterosexual relations as governed by the "phallic signifier." I move on to demonstrate how some of these Lacanian tools might be applied practically to analyze two films, Otto Preminger's noir classic Laura (1944) and Darren Aronofsky's more recent thriller Black Swan (2010), both of which deal with the desire, sexual identity, and idealized representations that are at the center of much of Lacan's writing.


Publication title

Thinking in the Dark: Cinema, Theory, Practice


M Pomerance and RB Palmer






Student Life and Enrichment


Rutgers University Press

Place of publication

United States



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Copyright 2016 Rutgers, The State University; and individual authors

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Expanding knowledge in creative arts and writing studies

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