“Only the subject – the human subject, the subject of the desire that is the essence of man-is not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. How? In so far as he isolates the function of the screen and plays with it. Man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze. The screen is here the locus of mediation.”
— Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis
The numerous definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary for the word “screen” can be generally categorized into two groups. [i] In the first group a screen is in some sense protective of an object, or used to obscure and conceal an object. At its most opaque, the screen separates space (corporeal or abstract) in a process of exclusion or limitation. The second area of signification has to do with the screen as a surface onto which images are projected or attached. (cf. surface) In this second set images or light may pass through the screen, sometimes maintaining their integrity, sometimes violated or mediated. In the first instance, the screen (whether contrivance or action) is afforded a limited amount of agency in regards to an object. In the second, the screen is usually described as a passive receptacle for signification. It is within the tension of this dialectic that many of the debates over “screen” technology and theorization occur.
I will begin by discussing a few archaic paradigms of the screen. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the subject is positioned facing a wall of the Cave, on which she is lead to misrecognize projected shadows of artifice as true ‘objects’. The subject is therefore doubly removed in this illustration from the ‘real’ that exists outside of the Cave. Without the dialogistic method that Plato conceives of as the path towards the light, the subject necessarily believes the screen (Cave) projections, what we might call representations or simulations (cf mimesis, representation), are ‘real’ Things. The duped Platonic subject is held in thrall, enslaved to a screen that is always-already mediating the ‘real’.
The Grove Dictionary of Art’s entry for ‘screen’ provides us with a second, early figuration of its technical materiality. [ii] This source defines the screen entirely in terms of its liturgical functions, focusing primarily on the choir screen. The liturgical screen is an apparatus used, with increasing frequency in the Middle Ages, to divide the space of the church into several zones of ascending holiness. Its continued architectural and sculptural development lead to the vast structures of the choir screen, which separated the sacred space and ritual of the Eucharist from the lay people of the church. Scholars have characterized these screens as restrictive and solid, in so far as they appear to exclude and mediate the common churchgoer’s access to the sacred mysteries. This assumption is being contested by the work of Jacqueline E. Jung who has insisted on the unifying function of the choir screen through an analysis of it as a permeable barrier, marked by portals and niches into which the subject may project herself. [iii] Her work has reinforced the liminality of the screen as a point of passage and transition. This alternative reading of the choir screen underscores its dual function because the putative exclusion of the subject from the inner sanctum is, paradoxically, that which constitutes its relationship to the church.
The screen is currently a particular site of contestation as media studies and its companion cinema studies achieve greater popularity and notoriety, uniting in their scholarship the metaphorical and technical aspects of the screen. Scholars are increasingly interested in how our subjectivity is mediated and/or constituted by the images appearing on television screens, computer screens and movie screens. One of the primary resources for this exchange is psychoanalysis.
In 1899 Sigmund Freud published an article describing a psychoanalytic phenomenon he labeled “screen memory” [cf memory, (2)]. In Freudian terms, the screen memory is a childhood memory that is either entirely fantastical or seemingly insignificant in its content. [iv] The screen memory acts as a cover for analogous but repressed memories, typically derivative of infantile impressions associated with sexuality, aggressivity or narcissistic mortification. [v] Freud characterized screen memories as “mnemic residues” which taken on a compulsive quality as they act to protect the subject from repressed trauma or desire. In his account the screen memory may have little or no correspondence to external reality and may in fact leave the subject in complete opposition to reality. [vi] In this sense the screen memory is a medium through and onto which the subject projects her retroactively formulated fantasies. The displacement of meaning from the “real” but foreclosed trauma to the imaginary and symbolizable screen memory enables the subject to maintain the fiction of stable identity.
Freud’s discussion of screen memory within the psychoanalytic model is an important touchstone because it engendered a modern trajectory of theorizing the screen as a site of mediation. Already it is clear that the screen memory challenges the narrative function of memory, blurring opposition between the authentic and counterfeit as a means of producing subjectivity. In the nineteen sixties, Jacques Lacan’s development of Freudian methodology greatly complicated the schematic and pragmatic psychoanalytic conceptualization of the screen.
There is huge variation and enormous implications for the way that particular scholars have read Lacan (cf Symbolic/Imaginary/Real). It is impossible within the limits of this essay to give an adequate illustration of this entangled dialogue, and instead I will try to focus on the research of art historian Hal Foster and film scholar Kaja Silverman. Foster has used Lacanian screen theory to further an argument about abjection and obscenity in contemporary art. On the other hand, Silverman works with Lacan’s screen in an effort to clarify Lacan’s distinction between the look and the gaze (see eye and gaze). I hope that together these authors can help to elucidate the Lacanian screen and demonstrate how the psychoanalytic model of screen theory may be useful to theories of media.
Foster has written convincingly in The Return of the Real on the paradoxical strategies of abjection in contemporary art. He begins his argument by invoking Lacan’s discussion of the gaze in his authoritative text The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. [vii] For Foster, Lacan’s schematic presentation constitutes a radical shift from the Albertian perspectival paradigm of visual mastery (see perspective). In Lacan’s revised diagram, the traditional cone of vision, with object at the wide end and subject at the point, is superimposed with a second cone. This second, inverted cone locates the “gaze” at the point and the subject in the object position. At the center of the overlapping cones is the image-screen. Lacan imagined this other gaze as that which emanates from the world, and he conceived of it as violent, a threat to the subject. The subject therefore depends on the image-screen to mediate the pulsatility and brilliance of the gaze that gazes back. [viii]
For a cinematic example of the object-gaze I turn to Slavoj Zizek, in his discussion of Hitchcock’s Psycho. He invokes the formal procedure of juxtaposing the subjective view of Lilah as she approaches the Bates house with the objective shot of Lilah in motion. This generates anxiety in the audience because it provokes an “uneasy feeling that the house itself is somehow already gazing at her, from a point which escapes her view and so renders her utterly helpless.” [ix] However, to see without the image-screen would, in Foster’s estimation, constitute being “touched by the real” and result in psychic death. Foster sees the use of abjection in contemporary art practice as an attempt to “puncture” the screen, to view the sublime horror of the object-gaze (see beautiful, sublime). Essentially, to look upon the impossible Real, which seems to be a paradoxical project. [x]
The questions this leads Foster to ask are important – if the screen always already exists between the subject and the gaze, can the screen be pierced? If the theoretical hardening of the screen challenges the assumed transparency of sight and vision, what are the implications for a screen that is always mediating the object-gaze for the subject? Foster’s conclusions seem to be limited by his reification of a subject who occupies a stabile position external to the screen. Silverman problematizes this by exploring how the screen denaturalizes the subject/object position. [xi] She uses a more thorough reading of Lacan to demonstrate how the subject is depicted as actually within the screen, appearing as a stain on the screen. Silverman explores how in Lacan’s model the screen appears opaque and intraversible, and yet it is also the surface on which the subject assumes the form of representation. The important distinction here between Silverman and Foster is that Silverman reminds us that it is against these representations, and not the ever-present gaze, that the subject enters the Symbolic (cf mirror). Silverman suggests that the screen cannot be understood apart from mimicry, during which the subject is inscribed onto the image-screen as a stain (see anamorphosis). In the animal kingdom this mimicry is a “passive duplication of a pre-existing image”, but Lacan differentiates man from this picture in the epigraph above. [xii] Man alone can map himself onto the screen. This slippage provides one of the few moments of limited agency in Lacanian theory.
However, agency is always paradoxically denied by the impossibility of the subject ever achieving any “real” authenticity. As Silverman notes, because identity is established at the level of the screen and not the gaze, the gaze has no actual power to constitute the subject. This allows room in the screen to contest the look, while acknowledging the impossibility of owning the gaze or of escaping specularity. [xiii] Although our look may have the metaphoric function of the gaze (as the penis has the metaphoric function of the phallus), it is always defined in terms of absence. The gaze is symbolic of the lack that constitutes castration anxiety, a lack that is always foreclosed and ultimately disavowed on the image-screen. Following our earlier discussion of choir screens, the tension between Foster and Silverman emphasizes the simultaneous prohibitive and constitutive function of the screen.
In conclusion, it is necessary to address the present-day proliferation of screen technology. In his article, “Blankness as Signifier”, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe outlines a contemporary inversion of the blankness that is a characteristic property of surface. [xiv] He seems to indicate that an historical transition has taken place during which blankness has gone from a symptom of lack to a potentiality already full of meaning, “the term a blank expression sums up the problem: it implies communication through noncommunication, the recognition of incomprehension . . . the face signifies by refusing to signify” (see face). [xv] In particular Gilbert-Rolfe links this blankness to the electronic screens of video and computer, as the surfaces that have come to dominate our sensorium. Yet Gilbert-Rolfe ultimately abandons the visual model, to which psychoanalysis remains indebted. Instead, he conceives of a relationship to the video screen as “one of pure discourse taking place on a ground that virtually no one can visualize in the sense that one may visualize the workings of a steam engine or a printing press.” [xvi] Although he disavows a strict Lacanian reading, his emphasis on the signifying capabilities of the ostensibly empty screen seems to echo the ‘fullness’ of the Lacanian image-screen. For Gilbert-Rolfe artistic resistance to the world of surfaces will be “producing and produced out of discontinuity” [xvii] with the seamless, placelessness of the screen. I think the previous discussion of the screen, highlighting its ambiguity and ambivalence, is helpful to think about this “active blankness” we have come to dwell in.
Department of Art History
[iii] Jacqueline E. Jung, “Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches,” Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 622.
[iv] J. Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis , trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London, 1973), 410-411.
[v] [v ] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism , in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works , trans. James Strachey (London, 1961), 23:74.
[vi] Freud, 76. Freud also adds that this divorce from reality opens the path to psychosis in the form of neurotic attempts to either bring the trauma into operation again (through compulsive repetitive reenactment) or reject it completely, resulting in inhibition and phobia.
[vii] Hal Foster, Return of the Real (Cambridge, 1996) 138-41. Please see attached diagram for reference.
[viii] Lacan is indebted to the phenomenologists in his conception of the gaze, specifically Maurice Merleau-Pontys’s conflation of the gaze and spectacle.
[ix] Slavoj Zizek, The Zizek Reader, ed. Elizabeth and Edmond Wright (Oxford: 1999) 16.
[x] Hal Foster, “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” October 78 (1996): 109. Foster suggests that much of contemporary art refuses the classical mandate to pacify the gaze, and differentiates between postmodernism of the 80’s (concerned with the desublimation of the image-screen) and postmodernism of the 90’s (concerned with the desublimation of the object-gaze). [x ] He also distinguishes between obscene and pornographic – an obscene representation is one in which the object-gaze is presented as if there were no screen so that the object appears too close to the viewer. In contrast, the pornographic preserves the voyeuristic capacity of the viewer by maintaining the integrity of the screen
[xi] Kaja Silverman, “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image,” in Visual Culture: images and interpretations , ed. Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey (Hanover: 1994) 272-301.
[xii] Ibid, 290.
[xiii] Ibid, 294.
[xiv] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Blankness as Signifier,” Critical Inquiry 24 (Autumn 1997): 159-175.
[xv] Ibid, 164.
[xvi] Ibid, 171.
[xvii] Ibid, 175.
Foster, Hal. 1996. The Return of the Real. Cambridge: MIT Press.
————-. 1996. “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic.” October 78.
Freud, Sigmund. 1964. “Moses and Monotheism.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.
Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. 1997. “Blankness as Signifier.” Critical Inquiry 24.
Jung, Jacqueline. “Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches.” Art Bulletin 82.
Lacan, Jacques. 1978. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis , edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton.
Laplance, Jean, and J.B. Pontalis. 1988. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnak.
Oxford English Dictionary. http://dictionary.oed.com
Plato. 1985. The Republic of Plato, translated by Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Silverman, Kaja. 1994. “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image.” In Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations , edited by Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey. Hanover.
Zizek, Slavoj. 1999. The Zizek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell.