scopic / vocative

Both “scopic” and “vocative” refer to the experience that the subject goes through in its interaction with the other. Scopic is derived from the word scope, which in both ending form and full word form inform the word scopic. The Oxford English Dictionary states that, used as an ending, –scope comes from the Latin “scopium” which means to look at or examine. [1] In its full form of the most relevant definition of scope in the OED, “something aimed at or desired; something which one wishes to effect or attain.” [1]

Vocative is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective referring to case, vocative “refers to that case of nouns, adjectives, or pronouns, which in inflected languages is used to express address or invocation,” or more generally “characteristic of, pertaining to, calling or addressing.” Rarely as a noun it can be used to describe “an invocation or appeal.” [3]

In “The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze,” Jacques Lacan looks to the “scopic field” as identified by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty identifies the eye as the “guide” in his examination of ideas in the aesthetic world, and also points out the fundamental obstacle in understanding the “scopic field”: “I see only from one point, but in my existence am looked at from all sides.” [4] The scopic field is not limited to the subject’s view, but indicates all visual angles, which is difficult to get around when the medium for experiencing this field is limited to the eye. A singular person can thus only have one view.

Lacan’s famous split between the eye and the gaze takes place in the scopic field. As he continues to define this split in “Anamorphosis,” he lays out the idea of the “scopic relation.” This relation establishes the gaze as the objet petit a from which the fantasy of the subject is derived. [5] The experience of seeing oneself seeing oneself is thus the result of the experience of the scopic relation: the gaze has enabled the subject to believe the fantasy that he can see himself. The fantastic element of this moment lies of course in one of the fundamental definitions of the scopic field. As Lacan mentions “I see only from one point”, and that point is inside the subject.

The gaze belongs solely to the object, which reinforces the limits of the subject in the scopic field. Slavoj Zizek expands of this idea, explaining that the gaze of the object is in itself an object. It serves as constant reminder to the subject that there is an angle from which he cannot see. [6] He cannot gaze at himself in the way the object does, nor can he gaze at the object from its own angle, thus he is a victim of “the stain”, the realization that “I can never see the picture from the point that it is gazing at me”. [7]

It is from here that the scopic field and scopic relation can make an entry into media and media studies. There are immeasurable ways that objects interact with viewers, continually propagating the fantasy that the viewer can see himself, while simultaneously acting as a reminder of this impossibility. In Lacan’s diagram of the eye and the gaze, we see that the object and the subject are forever involved in a mediation that begins with the eye, but is connected to all other forms of media image. The “ecran” or screen on which the image is projected can take many forms: television, computer screen, canvas, sculpture etc. Thus the experience of visual mediation always takes place in the scopic field and engages the scopic relation.

As W.J.T. Mitchell points out in What Pictures Want, this system “provides an especially powerful tool for understanding why it is that images, works of art, media, figures and metaphors have ‘lives of their own’”. [8] The scopic relation means that every mediated image, through the eye and beyond, adds another layer of the gaze and the stain. By consciously using this relation to their advantage artists are able to engage the viewer on levels that are unconscious, but innate.

The vocative acts on a similar level as the gaze within the scopic field. Vocative images go further than simply implicating the viewer; they directly interact with the viewer. By calling or appealing to the viewer, the vocative incites more than just the viewer’s self-reflexive knowledge, but enforces the gaze of the object and gives it agency. The object is thus elevated to the level of subject. We can better understand the vocative as giver of agency in the visual realm by looking to its function in language. As a “calling” tense, the linguistic use of the vocative implies the existence of an other outside of the subject being called. There needs to be a caller, or the vocative cannot exist. Thus, when translated back into the visual realm, there must be an object from which this call is coming. This point of origin, person or not, become a subject when it actively interacts with another subject. Thus, in the visual realm, the vocative works to animate the object, as it implies the agency of the caller.

The vocative exists in the scopic realm as one way the subject and objet petit a can interact. The gaze, while implicating the subject, does not necessarily give agency to the object. It is here that the vocative alters the scopic relation. While there can be a gaze without a calling, there cannot be a calling without the gaze. The vocative is what animates this other object in the scopic realm. The vocative is an element of the scopic that complicates the relation between the subject and the object.

The scopic field is the place in which the gaze and the stain enact their power. Zizek examines Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful possession of the stain as the visual “anamorphosis,” the visual cue that when seen from the correct angle (both technical and metaphorical) illuminates the true meaning of the scene. [9] Calling on the example of the single windmill turning in the wrong direction in Foreign Correspondent, Zizek unifies the gaze and the scopic field, recognizing that this inescapable visual cue is what ultimately gets back to the subject’s created fantasy: the belief in an idyllic and safe situation. [10] Zizek further locates this work in the scopic field when he identifies the tracking shot as Hitchcock’s mode for illuminating the stain. [11] Within the media of film, Hitchcock uses the tracking shot to identify the gaze by manipulating the eye of the viewer.

Another way to understand the use of scopic in media can be located in the idea of “scopic regimes.” The term was first introduced by Christian Metz, the French film critic, and is used in opposition to the notion that “vision” is universal. [12] The concept of scopic regimes means that there are specific ways of seeing that are manifestations of culture. This idea has influenced the discussion of technological determinism by insisting that technology is defined by the culture it is introduced to, not by some kind of intrinsic use value in the technology. Culture and technology, and with that modes of media, are thus forced into communication with one another. [13]

The idea that the act of seeing is not innate, but constructed culturally is highlighted in the idea of scopic regimes. An example of a scopic regime is a gendered way of seeing. By establishing an assertive, voyeuristic view of the subject a male gaze is enacted, while a more passive, surface oriented view reflects the cultural understanding of a female’s view. Certain elements of visual representation can invoke specific scopic regimes to frame art, or the illuminate those regimes that dominate the common act of seeing. [14]

Scopic regimes refer back to the original scopic relation and the gaze. A scopic regime is an overarching experience of the gaze, as enacted on an entire culture.

Courtney Tunis
Winter 2007


1. Oxford English Dictionary Online: /cgi/entry/50216205?query_type=word& queryword=scope& first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type =alpha&result_place=1 &search_id=i5P1-mQ6PAT-13188& hilite=50216205

2. Oxford English Dictionary Online: cgi/entry/50216198?query_type=word &queryword=scope&first=1 &max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha &search_id=i5P1-mQ6PAT- 13188&result_place=1

3. Oxford English Dictionary Online: cgi/entry/50278696?single=1&query_ type=word &queryword=vocative &first=1&max_to_show=10

4. Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York, London: Penguin Group, 1977. p. 71

5. Lacan, p. 83

6. Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry. Cambridge, London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991. p. 89

7. Zizek, p. 89

8. Mitchell, W. J. T. What do Pictures Want?. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. p. 352

9. Zizek, p. 91

10. Zizek, p.89

11. Zizek, p. 93

12. Baetens, Jan. “Scopic Regimes.” 9/1/2005 2005. .

13. Baetens, .

14. Baetens, .


Baetens, Jan. “Scopic Regimes.” 9/1/2005 2005. .

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York, London: Penguin Group, 1977.

Mitchell, W. J. T. What do Pictures Want?. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

“Oxford English Dictionary Online.” 1989. .

Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry. Cambridge, London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991.