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Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse MARIA SCOTT

Abstract: This article makes the case for a symmetry between the form and content of Lacan’s 1964 seminars on vision in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. As well as theorizing anamorphosis, or visual resistance, as a model of the dialectic between the eye and the gaze, the seminars function to lure and frustrate their auditor-readers. This reading, supported by Lacan’s references to his own discourse as a labyrinth and network of threads, shows how a policy of syntactic ambiguity and apparent contradiction seems to inform the logic of the seminars on vision, such that the gaze defies understanding as surely as it resists the eye. The article proposes that this structure of mise-enabyme, discussed as hypnotic even within the discourse on the gaze, is designed to captivate auditor-readers. Elements within the seminars, as well as Lacan’s ‘post-face’ to the published edition, suggest that the discourse is addressed to our unconscious. Keywords: Lacan, gaze, object a, anamorphosis, legibility, labyrinth, ethics, resistance

In a recent article in this journal, Douglas Sadao Aoki discussed the impenetrability of Jacques Lacan’s work to some of our most eminent thinkers, and argued that its perceived illegibility arises from a staging of theory within the text itself.1 Something similar is suggested by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, who writes that Lacan’s ‘linguistic baroquism’ serves as the paradigm of his theory of art as anamorphosis.2 It is not unlikely, then, that the structure of Lacan’s complex 1964 seminars on vision in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis mirrors the very operation that they theorize: anamorphosis. While the seminars on vision have not been treated as specifically deceptive or anamorphic, Lacan’s discourse in general is nevertheless frequently described in these terms. Of his famous Seminar, Elisabeth Roudinesco writes that it was ‘the laboratory of a thought that, by its reference to baroque art, seemed to want to imitate the trompel’oeil façades of a Francesco Borromini’.3 Malcolm Bowie points out
Paragraph 31:3 (2008) 327–343 DOI: 10.3366/E0264833408000308

and describes Lacan’s prose as ‘baroque’ in its rhetorical discontinuities. moreover. Lacan’s discourse on vision contests the receiver’s mastery over meaning by presenting him or her with an object — the notion of the gaze — that resists understanding as defiantly as Holbein’s death’s head resists perception when viewed from the front. as it is in this picture’ (SXI. Ellie Ragland defines the object a as ‘an irreducible residue of indecipherable knowledge’. just as repression is foundational to the subject’s entry into the Lacanian Symbolic Order. Indeed. by definition. referring for example to ‘the gaze as such. . which he claimed were manifestations of the real within the symbolic. because it ‘is always. flattering the viewer by presenting a picture that. concentrations and surprises. before it humiliates the viewer by revealing a staring death’s head when the misshapen mass is glimpsed from the side. and associates the phenomenon of anamorphosis with ‘the Baroque return to the play of forms’. the constitution of subjectivity: elements within the optical field must be repressed if clear vision is to be enabled. describes the object a — which the gaze in these seminars represents — as ‘a special kind of memento mori’. in its pulsatile. a title that highlights the analogy they establish between a particular aspect of vision and a key Lacanian concept. perceived in a distorted way’. seems to celebrate human learning.7 Lacan himself states in the seminars on vision that ‘the gaze is specified as unapprehensible’.328 Paragraph that Lacan admired the ‘endlessly playful and self-transforming literary text’ of writers such as Rabelais and Joyce.5 The seminars on vision are collectively entitled ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’. For Lacan. further suggests that the difficulties of the seminars on the gaze mirror the challenge posed by Holbein’s displayed but hidden death’s head.4 Lacan himself accepts the association of his discourse with the baroque. that of the object as cause of desire. Lacan explicitly identifies the gaze with Holbein’s displayed but hidden death’s head. dazzling and spread out function. Slavoj Žižek refers to it as a principle of anamorphosis. this anamorphic painting dramatizes the workings of human vision and. analogically. despite showing in its foreground an indistinct mass that resists recognition. Lacan explains that Holbein’s painting acts as an allegory of vanity. 89).8 Any understanding of the gaze is therefore as partial as the imagined mastery of the viewer standing before Holbein’s painting. the order of language. At the centre of the seminars is Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors. The fact that Lacan gave the name ‘caput mortuum’ to obstacles to logic.6 Bowie.

11 The connection between the labyrinth and anamorphosis might be explained by the fact that both frustrate the demand to see. ) — entrelacs (interlacing. and even implies a link between Merleau-Ponty’s untimely death and his choice of the wrong route. by whom Lacan was directly influenced. with the surrealist contestation of ‘a God’s-eye view of the world’. passes. In speculating about how the latter may have pursued his study of vision had he lived longer.9 Jean Cocteau compares cylindrical anamorphosis to the mythic labyrinth of Knossos. 85) The most explicit labyrinthine metaphor joining vision and the text appears in the third seminar on the gaze: In this matter of the visible. along the veins through which the domain of vision has been integrated into the field of desire. Within the seminars on vision. as it were. as well as direct ones elsewhere in the 1964 seminar (SXI. . everything is a trap. as this essay will argue. There is not a single one of the divisions.10 Martin Jay associates Lacan’s labyrinthine model of vision. Both devices were favoured by the surrealists. that is not manifested to us as a labyrinth. a single one of the double sides that the function of vision presents. If Lacan’s seminars on the gaze are anamorphic in structure. 73). and is always to some degree eluded in it — that is what we call the gaze. (SXI. . 46. something slips. Michel Thévoz states his reluctance to entangle himself in the ‘exegetical maze’ posed by these seminars. is transmitted. and ordered in the figures of representation. (SXI. in the seminars on the gaze.’ (SXI. Lacan implies that the phenomenologist had fallen foul of the minotaur-gaze by taking the wrong turn in the labyrinth: he asks if the road Merleau-Ponty took was really ‘the way he wished . specifically. As we begin to distinguish its various fields.12 Oblique references to Ariadne’s thread are made in the course of the four lectures. in so far as this relation is constituted by the way of vision [or path of vision: ‘la voie de la vision’]. 93) The gaze is shown to elude representation as much as it escapes vision: In our relation to things. claiming that it is in its corridors that poetry and science meet. by pouring ourselves [or by slipping: ‘en nous coulant’13 ].Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 329 The practice of anamorphosis is closely linked to the motif of the labyrinth. intertwining). we always perceive more and more the extent to which they intersect. 251) and in Lacan’s other seminars. and in a strange way (. metaphors of the maze recur each time Lacan reflects upon the difficulty of representing the gaze: ‘We can apprehend this privilege of the gaze in the function of desire. from stage to stage. they also resemble a labyrinth. Lacan claims that ‘You can be made aware of this in more than one way’ (SXI. 73) Furthermore.

they also evoke the theme of entrapment: a ‘butterfly net’ (SXI. but also by the entanglement of planes . recalling the above passage in which the texttapestry is traversed. 70). a possible angling of the text (SXI. 76) and a fisherman’s ‘nets’ both feature in the seminars on the gaze (SXI. After stating that ‘The function of the eye may lead someone who is trying to enlighten you to distant explorations’. and refers to the philosopher’s tentatively projected origin of vision as a trap: ‘the toils (rets)’ (SXI. these words introduce the discussion of the gaze. and describes how straight lines. can’t you see. Anamorphosis can therefore be produced by the traversal of a grid. 82). tapestry. beyond its meaning as a tapestry needle. 87). Lacan’s running metaphor of the text as labyrinth is related. ne vois-tu pas. to the metaphor of the text as tapestry. If references to threads implicitly connect text.’ (SXI. ). Lacan uses the dream to illustrate the anxiety provoked by the real.330 Paragraph to take’. 82) is also strongly suggestive of a net. . Lacan finds an alternative route suggested by certain ‘traces’ and ‘reference-points’ (or landmarks: ‘repères’) in the philosopher’s text. 95). The reference to a hypothetical origin of vision as ‘toils (rets)’ (SXI. . 70) The question referred to here is that posed by the boy in the dream discussed in chapter VII of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams: ‘Père. ’ (Father. Lacan underlines the importance of choosing his road carefully: ‘we must choose from among these things those that are most relative to our search. in the path in which I am leading you. itself compared to a ‘canvas’ or ‘trellis’ (SXI. whether rays of light or ‘threads’. This theme of entrapment in a network or labyrinth is evoked not only by allusions to threads. . the way that seems best to me — threading my curved needle through the tapestry. labyrinth and anamorphosis. the term ‘aiguille courbe’ (curved needle) suggests. The possibility that anamorphosis is at work in the text is strongly suggested by the fact that Lacan describes the production of pictorial anamorphosis in terms that recall the making of a tapestry: he refers to it as a process of linking two planes with ‘a series of ideal threads or lines’ (SXI. in the same passage. as the above quotation indicates. 85). . between us and all those who try to conceive of the way of the subject [or the path of the subject: ‘le chemin du sujet’]. produce a distorted image when they pass through an angled version of Dürer’s pictorial grid. (SXI. 91) Lacan even assumes the role of maze master: It is there that — free as I am to pursue. I jump on to the side on which is posed the question that offers itself as a crossroads.

then. Lacan describes how the real produces effects of repetition in the signifying chain. the thread is a false one because all that is needed to simulate rational or geometrical vision is ‘a stretched thread’ (SXI. For example. If Lacan’s seminars on vision mirror Holbein’s Ambassadors. no doubt. 82) If. As well as being explicitly thematized. but which also urges the artist to put something into operation? (SXI. The auditor-reader of Lacan’s text can thus interpret its repeated attempts to define the gaze as signs of an insistence on the part of the real. 113–4) Can we not try to formulate what this something else is? (SXI. 114) What we see here. 647). how shall we try to imagine it? (SXI. Lacan explicitly links discursive elusiveness to eroticism (E. by one of the enigmas that the reference to nature presents us with.Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 331 upon which these allusions operate: Lacan seems to conflate form and content by announcing that although ‘it seems at first that it is light that gives us. Elsewhere. as it were. In those seminars. But how can we express it? (SXI. a new kind of philosophy’. fixed in the picture. 87). 92–3) How can we try to apprehend that which seems to elude us in this way in the optical structuring of space? (SXI. the gaze is that underside of consciousness. a descent of desire. an endlessly repeated act. 83) What is the desire which is caught. 73) But what is the gaze? (SXI. 115) The very fact of the repeatedly renewed attempt to represent the gaze indicates that it at once appeals to and eludes interpretation.14 The seminars on the gaze foreground resistance to knowledge in a particularly sustained way. These attempts to define the gaze can be understood to perform a testimonial function: ‘Only a rite. (SXI. fugue and eroticism’. it is partly in so far as they too organize the addressee’s pleasure by withholding recognition. the gaze’s resistance to apprehension is made felt in the seminars by other means. while John Rajchman suggests that Lacan ‘makes the eros of our not-knowing the principle of a new kind of medicine. Lacan repeatedly returns to the question of how to represent the gaze: Let me describe it. then. at its extreme point. Just prior to the seminars on the gaze. 93). the thread’ regarding the truth of vision. can commemorate this not very . Roudinesco claims that ‘the style of the Seminar is one of digression. is that the gaze operates in a certain descent. Lacan compares anamorphosis to ‘some delicious game’ (SXI. 93) But — this is the most subtle point — where does this gaze come from? (SXI.

101). with the real]. as it might at first seem. and concludes that ‘It matters little which is chief.’ (SXI. for example. Similarly. something that involves the abandonment. 83) The ambiguity here hinges on the word ‘whose’. from some self-mutilation induced by the very approach of the real. more broadly. the ‘il’ (he) here may refer either to ‘this gaze’ or to ‘the subject’. 59) Syntactic ambiguity plays no small role in the evocation of the gaze. and in the third claims that the relation between a painting and the gaze ‘is not. the subject tries to adapt himself to it. dompte-regard is also presented in the form of trompe-l’œil.332 Paragraph memorable encounter [with the dead child in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams or.’ (SXI. that of being a trap for the gaze’ (SXI. a privileged object. but which may ultimately complement one another. For example. that the effect of painting is to pacify the gaze: ‘Something is given not so much to the gaze as to the eye. is the objet a. François Roustang too draws attention to the plural possibilities offered by the above sentence. The opposition established by Lacan between the gaze and the eye does not stand up to scrutiny. He claims in the second seminar that every painting is ‘a trap for the gaze’ (SXI. 103). and thus as the opposite of what one might imagine the ‘dompte-regard’ (subdue-gaze) to be. the following sentence can be interpreted variously: It is here that I propose that the interest the subject takes in his own split is bound up with that which determines it — namely. Lacan seems to contradict himself on a number of occasions in his discourse on the gaze.’ SXI. ‘the very approach of the real’. whose name. While these alternatives seem mutually exclusive. which has emerged from some primal separation. (SXI. 83) In French. 111) However. Lacan states of painting that ‘As I said last time.’ (SXI. Lacan described the ‘trompe-l’œil’ as a ‘triumph of the gaze over the eye’ (SXI. that point of vanishing being with which the subject confuses his own failure. could refer to ‘a privileged object’. 101) Expressionist painting. in our algebra. 83): ‘From the moment that this gaze appears. ‘some selfmutilation’. 89). The syntax thus leaves room for interpretations which seem to conflict. he becomes that punctiform object. or ‘the real’. the fact that subject-object distinctions vanish when the subject is under the sway of the gaze suggests that the difference between subject and gaze is non-existent. of the gaze. ‘last time’. in the English as in the French text. however. which.’15 The following sentence presents a similar example of ‘the ambiguity that affects anything that is inscribed in the register of the scopic drive’ (SXI. the laying down. . He states. however.

may be for another the possession that gives satisfaction. (SXI. envy and vision. in other words. as the object a (SXI. the evil eye. Toward the end of the four seminars on the gaze. the eye filled with voracity. by associating demand with jealousy and desire with envy. the difference between the eye and the gaze seems to disappear. Lacan refers above to a pernicious ‘evil eye’ which. which has none. in terms that draw the eye close to the gaze. The child is not jealous of the baby.17 This belief governs his discussion of painting in Seminar XI. Lacan represents the conversion from demand to desire in a more negative light. to ‘what is demanded by the gaze’ (SXI. Lacan claims. Envy is portrayed as a far more barbaric state than jealousy. the separated a from which he is hanging. which has an object. before the idea that the petit a. Lacan describes both the eye and the gaze. shares the ‘power to separate’ of the ordinary eye. 101). 105). Rather.16 For example. this value is to be sought on a much less elevated plane than might be supposed. although implicitly associated with the gaze by way of references to its raw physicality. 115). Augustine’s account of a child’s envy while watching his little brother suckling at the breast of their mother. and therefore seems distinct from a gaze previously defined as excluded from separative vision (SXI. because he does not wish to have the breast. 104. To add to the confusion. In the next seminar on vision. is usually represented by Lacan as civilizing. However. at different points in the seminars. if there is not some appetite of the eye on the part of the person looking? This appetite of the eye that must be fed produces the hypnotic value of painting. 116): Such is true envy — the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness closed upon itself. he desires something impossible. to desire. it aggravates the gaze’s appetite rather than calming it. Lacan cites St. Befriedigung. in that which is the true function of the organ of the eye. at the close of the seminars on the gaze.Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 333 is exceptional in that it gives satisfaction to the scopic drive. 116) . (SXI. For me. namely. 115) It is difficult to see how expressionist painting is exceptional in its aggravation of scopic demand if the general function of painting is to feed the eye’s appetite. Drawing attention to the etymological link between invidia and videre. The conversion from demand. that the pacifying role of painting depends upon its appeal to the eye’s appetite: How could this showing satisfy something. and his desire ‘has on himself the effect of a poison’ (SXI.

’ (SXI. in its structure of self-doubling.334 Paragraph The break from the gaze to the eye. just as the assembling of a coherent self necessitates repression. The distinction between the gaze and the eye. while it permits human civilization. for example. but they are certainly not identical. It seems rational on the surface. the seminars on the gaze. which are generally perceived to be relatively transparent in their meaning. but a closer look reveals its subversions of reason. which was initially stated in terms of an opposition between nature and culture. aggressive function. earlier associated by Lacan with the Cartesian subject (SXI. he does not draw attention to the equivocal character of Lacan’s own discourse. from demand to desire. indeed. if it seems that the gaze shades indiscernibly into the eye. that is. and not simply its luring function as in nature. breaks down. lies in its enactment of that which it describes. 81). The fascinating . highlights painting’s duplicity in his discussion of Lacan’s ambiguous treatment of whether it is the triumph or defeat of the gaze that painting dramatizes. this impression must be balanced against Lacan’s warning. and therefore serves as an apparent guarantee of one’s mastery over the world. It is possible that much of the appeal of Lacan’s discourse. It is ironic.21 The same level of difficulty is not usually attributed to Lacan’s seminars. present an exception to this rule. However. also makes human beings more barbaric than animals: ‘it is in so far as all human desire is based on castration that the eye assumes its virulent. however. 118) The eye is thus endowed with a ‘power of annihilation’.’ (SXI. Lacan’s discourse in general is at once familiar and strange. given that visuality constitutes for him a stronghold of the imaginary. however. and demand and desire fade into each other.19 Jane Gallop insists that Lacan’s writing is ‘impossible to master’ and claims that ‘the attempt to cover up one’s own inadequate command of Lacan’s text necessitates a violent reduction of the contradictory plurality and ambiguity of that text.18 Like Holbein’s Ambassadors. lucid and opaque. Jay. in relation to the two modes or temporalities of vision: ‘The two overlap. and specifically his seminars on the gaze. without analysing the manner in which the difficulty of the discourse on the gaze mirrors the difficulty of its subject. 117) The tendency of commentators on the seminars on vision is to attribute their ambiguities to the complexity of the notion of the gaze. that Lacan should challenge the addressee’s mastery over meaning within a discourse on vision.’20 Gallop argues that most of Lacan’s commentators ‘concentrate on the fixing of meaning’ rather than on attending to ‘the slippage in his text’.

self-consciously produces a ‘sense that we are being hoodwinked’ (E. . ‘a reflection. of course. ). see also SXI. therefore. . or whether. 273) The circle-within-a-circle structure appears again in Lacan’s diagram of ‘the main point’ in the ‘fascinating game’ of viewing a painting: two concentric circles. between process and result. 82. 188). of the pupil behind which is situated the gaze’ (SXI. suggesting that he. either despite or because of the fact that Lacan’s discourse eludes comprehension.23 The constitutively invisible gaze (object a of the scopic .Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 335 effect of the mise-en-abyme is suggested even within the seminars on the gaze. like Poe. despite the lack of any real enigma in the story. in short. In his seminars on the gaze. on Dupin’s part (. the eyes are fascinating only by virtue of their relation to the form of the ocelli. when Lacan associates the structure of fascination with the image of the circle within the circle. Lacan compares the fate of Merleau-Ponty’s quest for the origin of vision to Actaeon’s transformation into a stag upon his accidental sighting of the Greek huntress Artemis (SXI.22 Both of these myths involve a woman associated with concealment: Ariadne and Eurydice. 4). Lacan asks how it is that ‘we are kept in suspense’ (E. or ocelli: it is a question of understanding whether they [ocelli] impress — it is a fact that they have this effect on the predator or on the supposed victim that looks at them — whether they impress by their resemblance to eyes. In addition. on the contrary. 11). 11). between the assuredly penetrating remarks (which are not. recalling Freud’s belief that myths tap into the unconscious mind. Lacan includes veiled allusions to the Minotaur myth and to Orpheus in the Underworld. see also SXI. Lacan has already stated in the preface to Écrits that Poe’s story might be read as ‘the parody of my discourse’ (E. The term ‘mise-en-abyme’. something about it seems to captivate reader-auditors. 108). It would be a tension. takes its origin in a similar structure: the inscription of the image of a shield on the surface of a larger shield. 73–4. Certainly. or performance and content. Lacan’s text on the gaze may be captivating not so much for its actual content as for the challenge it poses to understanding. Lacan locates the enigma that lures the reader on in ‘a certain discordance. Elsewhere. as found in naturally occurring ocular simulacra. always absolutely relevant when generalized) with which he introduces us to his method and the way in which he in fact intervenes’ (E. discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. however. 11). Like The Ambassadors. (SXI. that fascinates the reader in Poe’s tale.

that will be a reason for you to explain it. 207) Lacan goes on in the ‘postface’ to Seminar XI to write: You do not understand this writing [stécriture].336 Paragraph drive) is further associated with the feminine by way of analogies with the breast (object a of the oral drive): a captivating source of light is described in the seminars as ‘a milky cone’ and ‘milky light’ (SXI. you’ll be rid of it for the price of your embarrassment/ uncertainty [vous en serez quitte pour l’embarras]. Myths of hiddenness are thus hidden in the text. it is also recurrent in Lacan’s general work. the unconscious is founded on the repression of desire for the mother. More significantly for our argument. He asserts the following of the process of learning in humans: ‘In so far as a task is not completed the subject returns to it. this desire to know which can only emerge when they themselves have taken the measure of ignorance as such.’ (SII. And if it remains unfinished. to the structure of anamorphosis (SVII. as for what remains over for me. So much the better. I will insist. is as good as stated in his ‘postface’ added in 1973. The more abject the failure. If the trope of the hidden or clandestine woman is prominent (if partially concealed) in the seminars on the gaze. suggesting that something in Lacan’s discourse on vision is addressed to the unconscious.27 . via the signifier’s insistence. of course. I would not be postfacing it. You see. that is what I am talking about.24 For psychoanalysis. being that which is read before all else. desired by the courtly lover. the better the subject remembers it. If I were. That Lacan expressly built into his seminars on the gaze an address to the unconscious of his auditors for the purpose of guaranteeing. the date of the 1964 Seminar’s publication in French: what is read passes-across writing while remaining unharmed. the repetition of his teaching in the future. Now what is read. I would be posteffacing my seminar. I will outlive it. as is necessary in order that it be read.25 Lacan would seem to have calculated that readers would return to his seminar for as long as something remained unresolved and thus insistent therein. 108). in Seminar VII Lacan links the trope of the inaccessible woman. 139–54).’26 Lacan believed that ‘the only genuine teaching is one which succeeds in awakening an insistence in those who are listening. Must I insist? — Naturally: since here I am not writing. since what I am saying is all about/is destined for the unconscious [ce que je dis est voué à l’inconscient]. 107.

this dimension [the unconscious] should be evoked in a register that has nothing unreal. he writes. are somehow morally obliged to be difficult. Lacan describes his Écrits as being characterized by ‘the kind of tightening up that must. like the same anatomical navel that represents it. 53) The analyst bears witness to the real. If the real is not confronted. however. is the kernel of the real. The institution of the analyst as ‘the subject supposed to know’ is a necessary condition of the cure in analysis. that is. leave the reader no other way out than the way in. There is a danger in public discourse.’30 A major effect of Lacan’s difficulty is the assumption by readerauditors of his superior insight. so is the eventual liquidation of this transference. and in suggesting that students of the unconscious mind. ‘life is a dream’ (SXI.’ (SXI. As Bowie points out. 55).’29 Accordingly. For Lacan. psychoanalysis is centrally concerned with the real: ‘No praxis is more orientated towards that which. It is not without effect that. or dereistic. ). . . (SXI. as well as the unconscious. . one directs one’s attention at subjects. about it. One can never be sure that what one says on this matter will have no harmful effect — even what I have been able to say about it over the last ten years owes some of its impact to this fact. precisely in so far as it is addressed to those nearest — Nietzche knew this. which I prefer to be difficult’ (E. than psychoanalysis. to my taste. because ‘a writing in my sense is made so as not to be read. It is always dangerous to disturb anything in that zone of shades (. but is rather unrealized. even in a public speech. touching them at what Freud calls the navel — the navel of the dreams. Lacan’s ethics of perplexity are nothing if not unorthodox: ‘Lacan is quite alone in placing a continuous positive valuation upon ambiguity. according to Lacan. 23) This final sentence suggests that Lacan is adopting ‘a certain type of discourse’ in order to ensure the longevity of his discourse. a certain type of discourse can be addressed only to those furthest away. when they become writers. Textual difficulty thus fulfils an ethical imperative for Lacan.Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 337 A passage within The Four Fundamental Concepts also indicates that Lacan intended to address the unconscious of his auditors. and states in the ‘postface’ to the French version of The Four Fundamental Concepts that ‘It is not to be taken as accidental’ if his Écrits are difficult. to designate their ultimately unknown centre — which is simply. to the fact that something eludes consciousness. much as the analyst adopts an ‘oracular’ speech in his or her addresses to the analysand’s unconscious:28 Certainly. at the heart of experience. 412). that gap of which I have already spoken.

Lacan states that it is precisely the elusiveness of the object a that defines it: Why did I formerly bring in the Borromean knot? It was to translate the formulation ‘I ask you’ — what? — ‘to refuse’ — what? — ‘what I offer you’ — why? — ‘because that’s not it’. the seminars’ internal contradictions mean that a full understanding of the meaning of the gaze will remain always out of the reader-auditor’s reach. 67)31 Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe argue that the Écrits convert demand into desire by first offering themselves to be read and then endlessly withholding themselves from the reader. described by Lacan as a dialectization of desire. ideally. like desire itself for Lacan. Gallop suggests that the reader of Lacan’s Écrits is required to move from a referential to a formalistic level of apprehension. In Encore.338 Paragraph Although Lacan seems to have inspired a certain dogmatism in his students. as a strategy of discovering the truth in analysis.’ . and laments the fact that nobody in his own circle had approached his work in a similar way (SXX. that we can imagine a desire that is based on no being — a desire without any other substance than that assured by knots themselves. that is. The frustration of the demand to know operates. it’s object a. he actually encouraged them to diverge and innovate. according to Lacan. again in his sense: ‘If I said that they hate me it is because they “desuppose” that I have knowledge. and it is only by situating demand via metonymy. effected in the analytic situation. 126) The object a functions as a figure of resistance in Lacan’s discourse. (SXX. Object a is no being. in the following way: each term is sustained only in its topological relation with the others. by the pure continuity assured from the beginning to the end of a sentence. The object a represented by the gaze is. always slipping away from understanding. in Lacan’s sense. metonymic in structure. He praises Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe for reading his work ‘with so much love’. is precisely the one that is. You know what ‘it’ is.32 This movement from demand to desire.33 The discourse on vision seems to present a particularly good example of the strategy by which demand is frustrated in order to allow desire to surface. 65). frustrating the demand for meaning and leading to desire’s realization via symbolization or attempted explanation. but it was also hateful. Object a is the void presupposed by a demand.’ (SXX.34 This may be done in the case of Lacan’s seminars on the gaze by reading it as topological rather than representational: ‘My discourse proceeds. the reading carried out by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe may have been a loving one.

’ (E. 336) Lacan had no desire for his discourse to be reducible to a set of ‘isms’ or to be turned into ‘an intellectual cricket’ (SVII. 89) The reader-auditor of the seminars on vision would therefore need to move to another level of interpretation. and is repeatedly referred to by him as phallic. an anamorphic work involving a crucifixion by Rubens demonstrates.’37 If the seminars on the gaze begin.’ (SVII. just as the worst corruption is corruption of the best. reading the eye and the gaze in terms of their changing relation to one another instead of as stable sites of meaning. The various fluctuations and ambiguities surrounding the gaze in ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ can be resolved if the text is read as an enactment or performance rather than as purely representational. If the turning-point of Holbein’s painting is the recognition of its status as a gesture of address rather than as simple representation. Interestingly. is compared by Lacan to ‘the effect of an erection’ (SXI.” ’36 The auditor-reader of the seminars on the gaze is faced with a text that holds out the promise of fixed meaning but that repeatedly destabilizes the terms of its exposition. the seminars themselves are a virtual wake-up call. by demonstrating that it is only there as signifier. at least according to Gallop’s description of Lacanian ethics: ‘Lacan’s writing contains an implicit ethical imperative to break the mirror. transcending its veneer of representational clarity. the death’s head. 136) Similarly. or the illusion of privileged knowledge. 251–2). with a father waking up from a dream in which he is addressed by his burning son. The auditor-reader is called upon to wake up from the . Lacan held intellectual complacency in contempt (although not intellectual work itself): ‘The most corrupting of comforts is intellectual comfort. It can be argued then that the seminars on the gaze perform an ethical function. For example. for Lacan. the recognition of inconsistencies in Lacan’s seminars on the gaze permits the reader to separate (temporarily) from an imaginary relation to the text. 88). destroys itself. an imperative to disrupt the imaginary in order to reach “the symbolic. ‘Psychoanalysis has always aimed at awakening. that ‘what we seek in the illusion is something in which the illusion as such in some way transcends itself. According to Angelina Harari and Bernardino Horne. as mentioned. then this essay has argued that Lacan’s discourse hinges on a similar recognition. S/he must confront the death’s head in the place where s/he had previously been held captivated by the phallus. at the point where it is not yet recognized as such by the viewer of Holbein’s Ambassadors.Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 339 (SXI.35 Anamorphosis provides a model of the split from one level of representation to another.

translated by Barbara Bray (Cambridge.340 Paragraph dream of representational sufficiency. 88. 29. 21–37 (34) (my translation). The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton. Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction (Cambridge. MA. 1995). Princeton University Press. 9 In his discussion of Lacan’s seminars on vision. 136 (hereafter SVII). Fontana Press. 1992). Essays on the Pleasure of Death: From Freud to Lacan (New York. 2 Christine Buci-Glucksmann. W. 326. Martin Jay recalls the latter’s surrealist roots: he published an early article in Minotaure. ‘Une archéologie de l’ombre: Foucault et Lacan’.T. 362. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII (translated by Dennis Porter) (New York and London. 3 Elisabeth Roudinesco. Slavoj Žižek. and his early work was influenced by Salvador Dalí. 1995). M. unexplainable: an aporia’. Vintage. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality.I. Freud. 106 (hereafter SXX). 117. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Pop Culture (Cambridge. 13. ‘Letters from Lacan’. The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972–1973. See Martin Jay. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley. Norton & Company. NOTES 1 Douglas Sadao Aoki. 8 Jacques Lacan. . W. edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. 1991). 5 Jacques Lacan. 1997). 164. translated by Bruce Fink (New York and London. 1998). of ‘logical paradoxes’. 1987). just as the viewer of Holbein’s Ambassadors must confront the limitations of the eye as of human knowledge. L’Ecrit du temps 17 (1988). 230. 7 Bowie. of ‘something unaccountable. 12. 83 (hereafter SXI). Paragraph 29:3 (2006). Cambridge University Press. a surrealist journal. ‘Au Sujet de l’inconscient’. 1991). Jacques Lacan. Jacques Lacan. translated by Alan Sheridan (London. 1 (my translation). 1–20. Roudinesco says something similar of the Écrits. 1998). 136. Jacques Lacan. Routledge. See also Roudinesco. University of California Press.. see Elisabeth Roudinesco. Ellie Ragland. 1993). Polity Press. Lacan (London. Routledge. See Bruce Fink. Le Monde (12 June 1998). 4 Malcolm Bowie. Lacan. 27. 6 Bruce Fink defines the ‘caput mortuum’ as ‘a sort of a residue’ or ‘a “second-order” real’ produced by the symbolic order and taking the form of ‘impasses and impossibilities due to the relations among the elements of the symbolic order itself ’. 149–50. 30.

The object a is the cause rather than the object of desire. 16 Hanjo Berressem describes a development therein from juxtaposition to a direct relation between the eye and the gaze. in Cahiers Jean Cocteau. 366. in Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 103. 21 Reading Lacan. edited by Richard Feldstein. 1986). Perrin. 20. 1991). A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (Cambridge. ‘Notes autour d’une anamorphose’ (1961). 18 Downcast Eyes. 1973). Lacan. State University of New York Press. drawn from mythology. ‘Au sujet de l’inconscient’. 144–5. 81 (my translation). 25). 338 (hereafter E) for a somewhat labyrinthine statement of the link between the truth and the labyrinth. 14 Roudinesco. associating him with the analyst: ‘To resort to a metaphor. 22 Just prior to the seminars on the gaze. Truth and Eros: Foucault. Éditions de Minuit. W. 1969). 1993). . Le Miroir infidèle (Paris. 142–3. 2006). See Hanjo Berressem. See Jacques Lacan. 98. ‘The “Evil Eye” of Painting: Jacques Lacan and Witold Gombrowicz on the Gaze’. 6. In Bruce Fink. 20 Jane Gallop. 13 Jacques Lacan. 1995). and the Question of Ethics (New York. 8 (my translation). in Eurydice twice lost. strictly speaking. W. 26. 9 (Paris. Proust and Lacan. Berressem seems implicitly to link this ‘mixing up of registers’ to the ‘fascinatory’ effect of Lacan’s passage. MA. and to suggest a parallel between the text’s effects and what it describes (175–6). Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Blackwell. Bruce Fink and Maire Jaanus (Albany. 51. Éditions de Minuit. 5 (my translation). 35. has no object’. Cornell University Press. 17 Fink summarizes Lacan’s position: ‘Human desire. 175–82. Cited in Jurgis Baltrušaitis. All future quotations of the French text will be taken from this edition. we have. Le Séminaire. 15 François Roustang. Lacan: de l’équivoque à l’impasse (Paris. Psychoanalysis and the Future of Theory (Oxford. 1981).Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 341 10 Jean Cocteau. 1996). Lacan refers explicitly to Orpheus. 12 Michel Thévoz. Lacan. John Rajchman. the most potent image we can find of the relation between Orpheus the analyst and the unconscious’ (SXI. 19 See Bowie. 13. 23 Bowie discusses Lacan’s wider treatment of the Actaeon myth in Freud. 1985). 245–51. Norton & Company. 364. 1997). Anamorphoses: ou Magie artificielle des effets merveilleux (Paris. Reading Lacan (Ithaca. 167–73 and Malcolm Bowie. Livre XI (1964): Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris. Harvard University Press. Gallimard. Without developing the point. 11 Downcast Eyes. translated by Bruce Fink (New York and London. Routledge. Éditions du Seuil (collection ‘Points Essais’).

1988). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London.342 Paragraph 24 See for example Lacan’s use of the image of ‘an immense female body’ as a metaphor for the missing letter in Poe’s The Purloined Letter (E. Fink declares that ‘Reading Lacan is an infuriating experience! He almost never comes right out and says what he means’ (The Lacanian Subject. The Lacanian Subject. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II : The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis (1954–55). to unsettle us — not to lull us but to jolt us out of our conceptual ruts. having once approached or entered it. 35 According to Ross Skelton. 1996). .’ (Lacan. 30 Lacan. Le Titre de la lettre: une lecture de Lacan (Paris. Routledge. translated by Sylvana Tomaselli (Cambridge. 1973). 33 On the role of frustration in Lacanian analysis. the analyst listens to the vertical axis of an analysand’s discourse: ‘The analyst is listening not to what the patient believes is the meaning of his or her signifiers but to the “other” meaning that they acquire in the patient’s text. 34–5. see Roustang’s account of Lacan’s reaction to his refusal to write for Scilicet because he did not know how to write Lacanian: ‘he became angry and invited me to write in my own style. Les Quatre Concepts. 220). . 26 Jacques Lacan. but fiercely resented those who. see Fink. however. This means that language becomes extremely context sensitive as the meanings of words or signifiers will depend on . Nevertheless. Freud. 27 Lacan. Les quatre concepts. (. Related to this is his aim to put us to work. to provoke. 3. Les quatre concepts. 332. Cambridge University Press. 31 This point should be tempered. 311 (my translation). 150. see Dylan Evans. Proust and Lacan. by what Roudinesco has to say on the subject: ‘Lacan always respected those who criticized him from outside his circle. 309 (my translation). 69–71. 86 (hereafter SII). see also 255–6). Galilée. 26). 34 Reading Lacan. tried to break free’ ( Jacques Lacan. 67–8. Thus the phonetic and other relations between signifiers take precedence over the meanings which individual signifiers are presumed to have. and then our interpretation will still only be approximate: it will still miss the mark’ (A Clinical Introduction. 149). 28 On the analyst’s ‘oracular’ interpretation. 29 Bowie. 309 (my translation). . to remind us that in fact we do not understand what we think we understand (. and that we may have to make numerous attempts to express or conceptualize something. Lacan’s ‘postface’ was not included in Alan Sheridan’s translation. 11 (my translation)) 32 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. ). ) The concept of “meaning” is not one which is liked by Lacan for he takes a syntactic or structural approach to language rather than a semantic one. . 13. 25 Lacan. Lacan. Fink argues that the difficulty of Lacan’s text can be accounted for by the fact that ‘he is seeking to have certain effects on the reader other than meaning effects: he is seeking to evoke.

59.Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’ as Anamorphic Discourse 343 their interrelations in a given context. 37 Angelina Harari. ‘Lacan et l’éveil de la psychanalyse’. 1992). ‘Is the Unconscious Structured Like a Language?’. 168–78 (175).’ Ross Skelton. International Forum of Psychoanalysis 4 (1995). 36 Reading Lacan. in Connaissez-vous Lacan? (Paris. Bernardino Horne. . 139–43 (139) (my translation). Seuil.

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