Undoing the Image: Film Theory and Psychoanalysis


Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures, 1944

by Paula Quigley

Depending on your position, the phrase ‘film theory’ can refer either to a critical rigour informed by mainly European intellectual currents, or a ponderous and parasitic dependence on certain schools of thought, particularly psychoanalysis. The 50th anniversary edition of Screen – the journal responsible for the dissemination of so-called ‘Screen Theory’ in the 1970s – includes several reflections on its intellectual legacy, its engagement with psychoanalysis being the most prominent. In her editorial, Annette Kuhn refers to ‘Screen‘s notorious love affair with psychoanalytic theory, or a certain version of it, between 1973 and 1975 […] in the quest to understand (and perhaps undo) cinema’s particular appeal’ (Kuhn 2009, 3-6). Kuhn also acknowledges the wider consequence of this, that resistance to the dogmatic application of ‘cinepsychoanalysis’ and the resultant ‘retreat from Grand Theory’ in film studies towards more local and specific concerns, ‘entailed a wholesale distaste for the essential activity of conceptualization, of theorizing’ (Kuhn 2009, 5).

There has of course always been a strong reaction against ‘Screen Theory’ ever since it became established. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, for instance, have consistently called for, if not the end of film theory as such, then the end of ‘Theory’, defined as that school of thought that emerged in Anglo-American film studies in the 1970s, dominated by the holy trinity of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Saussurean linguistics and Althusserian marxism. In 1996, Bordwell and Carroll decried ‘decades of sedimented dogma’ (Bordwell & Carroll 1996, xvii) during which time film theorists were engaged in little more ‘than paraphrasing chunks of Theory’ (Bordwell & Carroll 1996, xv). Bordwell rejected the psychoanalytic premise – common to theorists such as Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey – that cinema elicits desire by offering specular identification (often unproblematically equated with the Imaginary) and that this is controlled by the structuring operations of the Symbolic (often uncritically associated with the realm of language) (Bordwell 1996, 7). He discounted the notion that this operation is inherently ‘ideological’ and that the work of oppositional filmmaking is ‘to block Imaginary identifications, to offer alternative identifications (for example, films of “feminine writing”), and to “deconstruct” the ideological underpinnings of dominant cinema’ (Bordwell 1996, 8).

More recently, Bordwell has condemned the continuing trend for films to be evaluated on ideological rather than aesthetic grounds, giving rise to a situation where ‘For many film scholars and students, movies exist less as parts of an artistic tradition than as cultural products whose extractable ideas about race, class, gender, ethnicity, modernity, postmodernity, and so forth can be applauded or deplored’ (Bordwell 2005, 266). Certainly, (as is the case with any discipline), there have been misapplications and somewhat selective (mis)readings. However, perhaps the problem is not so much the emphasis on ideology over aesthetics, or even a misguided investment in psychoanalysis per se, but rather the ways in which the selective misreading of (primarily Lacanian) psychoanalysis, combined with Saussurean linguistics and Althusserian marxism, were invested in undoing the iconicity of the image and re-inscribing it in the ideologically and intellectually more respectable form of ‘writing’.

As such, the issue is not necessarily about rejecting or even homogenising ‘film theory’. Indeed, we need to remember that a theoretical perspective is necessarily collective and political, and that the tension between aesthetics and theory underpins the origins of the word ‘theory’ itself. Wlad Godzich highlights this fact in his foreword to Paul de Man’s Resistance to Theory (1986), when he reminds us that the meaning of the word ‘theory’ is etymologically rooted in the Greek theorein (to look at, to contemplate), and it is not opposed to praxis but to aesthesis, understood as a resolutely subjective aspect of perception. Theory is the opposite of aesthesis because it refers to a specific kind of seeing that extends beyond subjective perception into the public realm. The testimony of the theoria was understood as the only alternative to an otherwise potentially infinite number of subjective perceptions, each based in its own aesthesis. The role of theory was thus from its inception linked to the institutionalised power of a group of spectators whose vision would grant the event a discursive standing. According to Godzich, the authority of the theoria ‘effects the passage from the seen to the told, it puts into socially acceptable and reliable language what it apprehends’ (Godzich 1986, xv).

Nastassja Kinski as Jane Henderson in Paris, Texas, 20th Century Fox, 1984

In the process of underlining the necessarily collective and political nature of theory, Godzich draws attention to the discursive operation inherent in any act of theorising. The authoritative certification of the seen has to use language itself. Godzich’s etymological excursion into the origin of theory is especially apt in this instance as film theory is, unavoidably, particularly preoccupied with ‘the passage from the seen to the told’. It goes without saying that any discussion of film inevitably involves translating the seen into the said, and that in this process something is irretrievably lost.

The limitations of language aside however, the issue here is the translation of film into ‘text’. Film theory’s suspicion of the visual has been matched only by its investment in the literary, or more precisely, in the graphic traces of the literary: ‘writing’. The desire to establish the cinematic equivalent of writing led to montage being identified as the principal means by which the problematic visual transparency of film is disrupted, and a system of signification based on the interaction of units of meaning is produced instead. Even feminist film theory, looking for alternatives to the limited and limiting representations of women in mainstream cinema, turned to ‘writing’ – historically the most masculine of media – in order to articulate the recuperated female body. While the point of difference hinged on the distinction between fragmentation/fetishisation (i.e. classical cinema) and fragmentation/articulation (the avant-garde), this contributed to an academic culture that contrived to translate potentially deceptive images into a kind of politicised ‘writing’. This involved turning from (feminine) sensual pleasure to (masculine) intellectual activity. Curiously, this gendered hierarchy has structured Western theological and philosophical thought for centuries, yet has survived almost intact into even the most ‘radical’ of film theory.

As several scholars (such as Gertrud Koch, see below) have noted, the guiding principle is remarkably close to the Bilderverbot, the long-standing prohibition against the use of images in religious worship. As W.J.T. Mitchell has detailed (1986), the idea of a textual or abstract representation as fundamentally superior to a pictorial image ‘has its theological precedent in the claim that the spiritual image, the imago dei, is not only the soul or mind of man, but the Word of God’ (Mitchell 1986, 34n). Mitchell suggests that the later more material understanding of the term ‘image’ as a picture or likeness was born of the desire to encourage devotion amongst an illiterate laity, giving them something upon which to focus their fervour, so to speak (Mitchell 1986, 34). The original Christian defense of the visual arts therefore, was based on their usefulness as educational tools; the concomitant fear, as articulated by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, was ‘lest some of the more simple and rustic, being uninstructed and hence ignorant of what is proper … be deceived by lifeless matter’ (quoted in Pelikan 1974, 95). If we swap ‘simple and rustic’ for ‘spectators’, and ‘lifeless matter’ for ‘film’, this fear of ‘lifeless matter’ has been reiterated and reinforced by several of the most significant strands of film theory to date, most notably psychoanalysis.

In fact, this fear of ‘lifeless matter’ was a foundational aspect of 20th century modernist thinking. Koch, for instance, observes that: ‘The Gnostic variant on the Bilderverbot, which amounts to a determinate negation in the image of everything which actually exists, is linked in a quite astonishing manner to the aesthetics of modernism’, and she argues that this has a particular importance in Adorno’s reflections on mimesis (Koch 1993, 218). The explicit foundation in Christian thought for the Bilderverbot is the prohibition of graven images in Exodus 20: 4: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939) makes a connection between the Jewish proscription of images and the creation of the first alphabet. In a footnote Freud remarks: ‘If they [the Jews] were subject to the prohibition against pictures they would … have had a motive for abandoning the hieroglyphic picture-writing while adapting its written characters to expressing a new language’ (Freud 1951, 283). Alphabetic (phonographic) writing is the rejection of imagistic writing and, as such, is the only form of writing that fulfils Moses’ second commandment, with far-reaching effects:

Among the precepts of the Moses religion there is one that is of greater importance than appears to begin with. This is the prohibition against making an image of god – the compulsion to worship a god one cannot see. But if this prohibition were accepted, it must have a profound effect. For it meant that a sensory perception was given second place to what might be called an abstract idea – a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality or, strictly speaking, an instinctual renunciation, with all its necessary psychological consequences (Freud 1951, 360).

Crucially, this ‘triumph of intellectuality over sensuality’ involves turning from a matriarchy to a patriarchy (in Freud’s terms, ‘an advance in civilization’), as maternity is proven by sensual evidence while paternity is based on an intellectual hypothesis (Freud 1951, 361).

Koch has noted that for Adorno, as for Freud, the transition from image to writing constitutes a decisive shift in human cultural history that cannot be reversed (Koch 1993, 215). The answer for Adorno is the ‘dialectic’ that ‘interprets every image as writing’ (quoted in Koch 1993, 219). As Miriam Hansen observes, the corresponding operation in film is radical montage that enables film to ‘transcend reality’ and ‘resemble the phenomenon of writing’. However, as Hansen points out, it is clear that the term ‘writing’ here points to a form of inscription that is indexically motivated but not determined by a superficial resemblance and hence linked to a false immediacy and intelligibility (Hansen 1992, 46).

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures, 1944

If, as Thomas Levin notes, Adorno approves of the indexical inscription of another form of mechanical reproduction, gramophone records (they are ‘covered with curves, a delicately scribbled, utterly illegible writing’ [quoted in Levin 1990, 31]), then his objection to film images, which are also indexical, ‘must be because the indexical traces of the photograph have the additional semiotic characteristic of iconicity’ (Levin 1990, 35). For Levin, the advantage of reading Adorno’s writings on film in light of his remarks on the gramophone is that it might reveal ‘a rather different, more Benjaminian dimension of Adorno’s position on the relation of cultural production and technological reproducibility’ (Levin 1990, 26). The advantage for our purposes is that it highlights the extent of Adorno’s hostility to the iconic character of film and his alternative investment in the idea of a kind of indexical inscription.

Hansen quite rightly points out that Adorno’s investigations into the mimetic capacities of popular culture are considerably more complex than this reading suggests (complicated in particular by his reflections on the hieroglyph). The point here however is that it was precisely this aspect of Adorno – his denigration of the iconic character of film and his celebration of radical montage as enabling a form of ‘writing’ (not just for film but as a model for gramophonic recording also) – that was most noted by many film theorists. Indeed, the importance of critical theory’s ‘determinate negation’ of the (film) image to the development of film theory cannot be overestimated. The intellectual connection consists primarily of a fundamental resistance to figurative representation that, when supported by a particular reading of psychoanalysis, went on to locate the ideological operation of cinema in the space between the spectator and the spectacle, and identified ‘writing’ – in its broadest senses – as a liberating critical activity.

The introduction of semiotics into film studies, while hugely important and productive, was the most obvious instance of this textual turn. However, this ‘antiocularcentrism’ (to use Martin Jay’s term) was by no means limited to film semiotics, or even semiotics in general. Jay’s extensive survey, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought (1994) persuasively argues that anti-visual discourse is a fundamental, albeit implicit, structuring principle of twentieth century Western thinking. According to Jay, though not limited to any one discipline, it is at its most prevalent in recent French thought, which is imbued with a profound suspicion of vision and its hegemonic role in the modern era. While insisting Cartesianism cannot be understood as the ‘sole scopic regime of modernity’, Jay argues that this misconception supports many of the most influential critiques of modernity, and that a denigration of the visual, and a rejection of the Enlightenment ideal of rational lucidity, have often gone hand in hand (Jay 1994, 589). The following extract summarises Jay’s argument and as such is worth quoting at length:

Although definitions of visuality vary from thinker to thinker, it is clear that ocularcentrism aroused … a widely shared distrust. Bergson’s critique of the spatialization of time, Bataille’s celebration of the blinding sun and the acephalic body, Breton’s ultimate disenchantment with the savage eye, Sartre’s depiction of the sadomasochism of the ‘look,’ Merleau-Ponty’s diminished faith in a new ontology of vision, Lacan’s disparagement of the ego produced by the mirror-stage, Althusser’s appropriation of Lacan for a Marxist theory of ideology, Foucault’s srtictures against the medical gaze and panoptic surveillance, Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle, Barthes’s linkage of photography and death, Metz’s excoriation of the scopic regime of the cinema, Derrida’s double reading of the specular tradition of philosophy and the white mythology, Irigaray’s outrage at the privileging of the visual in patriarchy, Levinas’s claims that ethics is thwarted by a visually based ontology, and Lyotard’s identification of postmodernism with the sublime foreclosure of the visual – all of these evince, to put it mildly, a palpable loss of confidence in the hitherto ‘noblest of the senses’ (Jay 1994, 588).

Jay suggests that these had a kind of cumulative effect, and that ‘critiques of specific historical manifestations of visuality worked … to discredit vision per se’ (Jay 1994, 588).

Freudian scopophila, the Lacanian mirror stage, the primary reference points for psychoanalytic film theory provided a persuasive paradigm for an academic culture intent on dismantling the ‘visual pleasure’ of narrative cinema. In a recent article detailing the crimes of psychoanalysis past and imagining a psychoanalysis ‘to come’, Rob Lapsley writes: ‘Of the crimes on its charge sheet, four are particularly salient: its reductionism; its pernicious sexual politics; its philosophical naivete – more precisely what Derrida famously termed its “phallogocentrism”; and, following Deleuze, its lifedenying misunderstanding of the nature of desire’ (Lapsley 2009, 15). To these four charges then, perhaps we could add a fifth: a certain intellectual embarrassment as to the distracting spectacle of cinema and the ensuing effort to articulate its appeal in ‘writing’. This is not necessarily inherent in psychoanalysis itself, but rather in its reincarnation in certain strands of psychoanalytically informed film theory.

Semiotics had initiated a rupture with classical film studies, but it had missed the chance to say something about the ‘subject’. Invoking the names of Barthes, Kristeva and others, a 1975 Screen editorial pointed out that these had:

long insisted on the limitations of the tradition of structuralist semiotics and aesthetics deriving from the work of Saussure, Jakobson and Hjelmslev … and proposed that the problem of the relation between subject and signifier could only be resolved by resort to historical materialism, but a historical materialism that has integrated the scientific revolution inaugurated by Freud and psychoanalysis. (Screen 1975, 5)

This was not a rejection of the linguistic project therefore, but a reformulation of it in psychoanalytic terms.

In Seminar II (1978), Lacan describes reading Freud as ‘worshipping the Golden calf’. Jean-Joseph Goux tells the story of how Lacan berated a student (Serge Leclaire) for what he called his tendency to ‘idolise the subject’. When Leclaire attempted to justify himself by saying that if he is guilty of this crime it is because he thinks it necessary – you cannot do otherwise – Lacan replied, ‘Well then, you are a little idolator. I come down from Sinai and break the Tables of the law’ (Goux, 1991, 115). This prompts Goux to pose the seminal question: ‘Why does Lacan constantly privilege the letter at the expense of the image? Is it an ethical or even religious justification, the insistence of a theology of the alphabet and of writing as scripture?’ (Goux 1991, 109). Goux describes Lacan as a sort of Moses of the world of psychoanalysis, leading his chosen people to the promised land of language:

From the very start it is Moses who takes the analyst’s chair and who repeats the second commandment to the patient. … The analyst fends off images, pictures, fantasies; he shatters gods, smashes idols. Whenever he speaks, he reenacts the iconoclastic gesture. … Mental circumcision is his access to the law of the father – whence the Judaic scene of Freudo-Lacanian analysis: the patient is the pagan. His hysteria (his madness) is a frenetic dance around the Golden Calf (the cow of Isis) to the sound of the tambourine and the flute. His perverse (polymorphous, polytheistic) imagination is flooded with erotic fantasies, exotic gods that take shape in his imagination. He is possessed by netherworld divinities who take possession of his unhealthy dream. As for the analyst, he occupies the place instituted by Moses. He leads his patient forth from Egypt, driving the gaudily picturesque hieroglyphics of his fantasies home to the letter, driving every whoop to the written word, every show of the imaginary to the disimagined strokes of the alphabet. (Goux 1991, 114)

Goux quotes Leclaire writing with ‘the candor of a true disciple’: ‘“The ideal goal of psychoanalysis” is “to strip the mirages of signification down to the formality of a literal web”’ (Goux 1991, 111).

Ellie Ragland-Sullivan warns us that we must resist the urge to take Lacan literally when he says ‘the dream-work follows the laws of the signifier’ or ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. She quotes Slavoj Žižek arguing against just this kind of reductive interpretation:

Lacan’s best known proposition is surely the famous ‘unconscious structured like a language,’ which is usually understood as pointing to a semiotic reinterpretation of psychoanalytical theory and practice … contrary to this widely assumed supposition, Lacan’s theory, at least in its last period, is far from endorsing any kind of language reductionism: his central effort is precisely to articulate the different modes of the real kernel (das Ding, objet petit a) which presents an irreducible obstacle to the movement of symbolization. (Quoted in Ragland-Sullivan 1991, 64)

But when aspects of Lacanian theory were taken up by Metz, Baudry, Mulvey et al in their investigations into cinematic spectatorship, this resulted in exactly the kind of ‘language reductionism’ Žižek cautions against. Lacan’s emphasis on language was mobilised in order to justify somewhat overstated comparisons between the ‘illusionism’ of the film image and the Lacanian imaginary, with all its attendant problems.

In an important essay that refuted many of the central tenets of psychoanalytic film theory, Joan Copjec argued that:

the central misconception of film theory, believing itself to be following Lacan … conceives of the screen as a mirror, in doing so, however, it operates in ignorance of, and at the expense of, Lacan’s more radical insight, whereby the mirror is conceived as screen. … This misconception is at the base of film theory’s formulation of two concepts – the apparatus and the gaze – and of their interrelation. (Copjec 1989, 54)

According to Copjec, this confusion supports one of the best-known and most influential applications of Lacan to film theory, Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier (1975). Metz critiqued the cinema as ‘imaginary’, as based on the subject’s misrecognition of itself as a unified subject who acts on the world and as also ‘ideological’, in that it offers the spectator some illusion of omniscience. In turn, Jean-Louis Baudry’s concept of the ‘cinematic apparatus’ (the economic, technical and ideological institution of cinema) was presented as an antidote to the ideological operations of film’s ‘impression of reality’.1 According to apparatus theory the ‘eye’ is identified with the ideological ‘subject’ and the ideological operation of cinema is such that the ‘eye-subject’, in its identification with the camera, is unfettered by limits of body or space or time, and ‘the world will not only be constituted by this eye but for it’, producing the illusion of the ‘transcendental subject’ (Baudry 1985, 537).2 But this ‘specular tranquility’ and the assurance of one’s own identity would collapse with the exposition of the cinematic mechanism, of ‘the inscription of the film-work’ (Baudry 1985, 540).

In Baudry’s account the process by which the subject is constituted in its position of misrecognition is successful, but, as Copjec has argued, what is avoided in this is the function of the gaze, the fact that we are beings who are looked at in the spectacle of the world: ‘That which makes us consciousness institutes us by the same token as speculum mundi’ (Lacan 1994, 75). In this sense, the spectacle of the world appears to us as all-seeing, a quality which is then transferred to the phantasy of an absolute omniscient being, producing anxiety and not ‘specular tranquility’. Thus, Baudry’s apparatus theory does not so much to adhere to and apply Lacanian concepts to film, but rather borrows the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to sustain the persistent opposition between the ‘false immediacy’ of the image and the liberating potential of a kind of technological ‘inscription’.

According to Baudry, it is the concealment of the technical base that produces the ideological effect, whereas its revelation would produce a ‘knowledge effect’; those remaining in the closed space of projection and reflection finding themselves (though they cannot ‘know’ it) ‘chained, captured, or captivated’ (Baudry 1985, 538). Again we return to the ‘simple and rustic’ being ‘deceived by lifeless matter’, and once more they are ignorant of their circumstances and powerless to change them. It is the task of the intellectual to reveal the illusory nature of their idols and in so doing to release them from ideological captivity.

Noël Carroll accuses Laura Mulvey of enacting a similar kind of ‘Moses leading the people’ scenario in his critique of her ‘visual pleasure’ thesis. Mulvey called for ‘films of “feminine writing”’ based on the refusal of visual pleasure as structured by the ‘male gaze’; in her own oft-quoted words, a cinema that would ‘free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment’ (Mulvey 1985, 315). Carroll commented on this, saying:

Thus, Laura Mulvey discovers that classical filmmaking is nothing short of psychosexually regressive, while the difficulty of her own counter-cinema promises evolution to the Symbolic, as if avant-garde, modernist film practice went hand-in-hand with maturity. (Bordwell and Carroll 1996, 44)

In addition to questioning the emancipatory capacity of oppositional cinema, Carroll touches upon a problematic aspect of this line of thinking, namely: the oversimplified equation of ‘woman’ with ‘image’ and of ‘image’ with ‘imaginary’. Mulvey herself writes: ‘Important for this article is the fact that it is an image that constitutes the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition and identification, and hence of the first articulation of the I’ (Mulvey 1985, 308).

While it might seem that the time for thinking about this kind of theory is past (certainly there seems little need for more critiques of Mulvey), the fact is that this sort of anti-specular rhetoric persisted well into the 1990s and beyond, and is still evident in current applications of psychoanalysis to film. Mulvey’s 1993 piece, ‘Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in theContext of Contemporary  Culture’, extended her earlier critique of the sight of particular fetishised objects (i.e. women) to cover ‘sight’ itself. Bringing together the Freudian concept of the fetish with the Marxist concept of the fetishised commodity, Mulvey argues that (feminised) spectacle, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, distracts us from meaningful engagement with historical ‘text’.

According to Mulvey, the aesthetics of realism had a particular relation to an idealisation of vision founded on the idea that, just as a commodity was held to represent or refer to a certain value in economic terms, an image also represented or referred to the object it depicted. It was semiotics and psychoanalysis that brought about the ‘conceptual liberation’ of the image from this trap of direct iconic referentiality. Now, the image still refers, but not necessarily to its iconic referent. The aesthetics of postmodernism with its ‘pleasure in instabilities of meaning and infinite deferral of reference’ (Mulvey 1993, 3-4) reflect the new financial and economic structures of finance capitalism (though it might be said that these instabilities are no longer quite so pleasurable in the context of the current economic climate). Money, the sign of value, circulates in processes of exchange that does not necessarily represent either commodities or their production. This ‘sliding’ of signification in contemporary culture and aesthetics presents new problems in terms of analysis. If postmodern aesthetics has lost that motivating principle of cause and effect, this poses the problem of how the hidden historical ‘text’ may be deciphered beneath the alluring spectacle.

Jenny Agutter in Walkabout, 20th Century Fox, 1971

‘The sheer force of “rich sight”, of the spectacle, creates a diversion away from inquiry or curiosity’ (Mulvey 1993, 19). This finds its ultimate manifestation in the eroticised feminine. It is the eroticisation of femininity that creates cinema’s economy of fetishism, forging a link between commodity fetishism and erotic fetishism, between the commodity as spectacle, and the figure of the woman as spectacle on screen. So, ‘fascination with woman as surface and cinema as surface – can slide together, closing the gap between them like automatic doors’ (Mulvey 1993, 13). A re-examination of the aesthetics of disavowal in Hollywood cinema (which Mulvey locates in the ‘social imaginary’) would be an attempt to bring to light the ‘black holes’ of political, class, and sexist oppression (which she locates in the ‘symbolic order’) at a time when the gap between representation and historical reality was becoming increasingly wide.

In this reading, it is no longer what the spectacle represents (i.e. the eroticised feminine) that is problematic, but spectacle, or ‘rich sight’, itself, which is demonised to such a degree that it is held responsible for diverting attention away from the ‘text’ of real social problems. The intrinsic validity of the argument aside, what is of interest here is the endurance of the connection between woman and spectacle as a conceptual and critical framework for reading social and aesthetic formations. I have mentioned already the theological foundations for the equation of phonetic language with a masculine, patriarchal discourse, and the identification of spectacle with a matriarchal feminised order of representation that must be abandoned on the ‘march towards civilisation’. The connection between woman and spectacle and masculinity and obscurity is deeply embedded in our philosophical traditions also, as well as in their application to film.

For Edmund Burke of course, the sublimity of God is directly linked to his invisibility.3 For Kant, too, ‘Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc.’ (Kant 1987, 135). As Jay notes, it is the attitude to the sublime that distinguishes the modern from the postmodern for Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard points to Kant’s evocation of Exodus 20: 4, the prohibition of graven images, as the model of the sublime; the sublime is the experience that ‘alludes to something which can’t be shown, or presented (as Kant said, dargestellt)’ (quoted in Jay 1994, 582). For Lyotard then, the distinction between the modern and the postmodern is less about time frames or economic structures and more about an attitude or aesthetic gesture that is bound up with issues of representation and representability. As Thomas Docherty puts it, ‘there is a specific problem of the visual and representation at the core of the postmodern mood’ (Docherty 1996, 151).

Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures, 1944

Docherty frames his discussion of narrative time and narrative space in cinema within the context of Lyotard’s distinction between the modern and the postmodern, and their respective attitudes to the ‘figural’. According to Docherty, Lyotard argues that Western modernity prioritises the ‘discursive’ over the ‘figural’ or the ‘readerly’ over the ‘visible’ (without assuming any direct mapping between these pairs), and that this can be traced back to the Judaic ban on representation. Taking Freud as his starting point, Lyotard argues that the shift from a sensuous experience of a visible god to a blind faith in the word of an invisible god has had a formative influence on Western thinking, and that Judaism and psychoanalysis are linked in their (psychotic) foreclosure of the maternal, which in turn is linked to their resistance to images.4 Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that when Docherty applies Lyotard’s insights to a discussion of cinema’s own ‘resistance to cinematic culture’ (Docherty 1996, 152), (that is, its concentration on narrative economy at the expense of the voluminous field of space), it is the female body on screen that resists ‘the omnivorous and homogenizing power of a certain discourse’ (Docherty 1996, 168).

Taking film noir as an example, Docherty discusses the ways in which one of its foremost characteristics, the voice-over, implies a temporal perspective (the events being narrated have already happened) rather than a spatial point-of-view. However, according to Docherty, the authority of that voice-over ‘is never clearly ‘confirmed’ by the image … On the contrary, the visual domain in noir is typically dark, obfuscatory, occluded, offering at best a shadow of clarity’ (Docherty 1996, 166).

Docherty points to the scene in Double Indemnity (1944) where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) discusses reinsuring the family cars with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in the lounge of the Dietrichson house. As Docherty describes it, at one point in the scene Phyllis stands up and walks over to the fireplace. The camera follows her, leaving Walter out of the frame, though we can still hear him talking. Phyllis walks back and forth, casting a shadow over the fireplace. So, we hear Walter’s voice, and we see Phyllis and the shadow she casts. As Docherty notes, at a narrative level, this signifies her considering the current situation for its criminal possibilities, and this is confirmed when she turns towards Walter and asks him about accident insurance. Stylistically also, it is fairly typical of film noir with its marked lighting and emphasis on shadows. However, for Docherty:

this shadow signifies more than the character thinking to herself. It is crucial in drawing attention, by its superfluity or excess (a ‘dyseconomy’ in the visual field), to the physicality of Phyllis and thus in contributing to the sensuous eroticism of the film as a whole. (Docherty 1996, 168)

The emphasis on shadows draws attention to the voluminous space of the film and, at the same time contradicts, or at least resists, the authority of the voice-over. Film noir then, with its emphasis on the visual field evident in its distinctive mise-en-scène, is an example of an attitude to film that critically resists total textualisation. While this reading offers us a fresh perspective from which to view a familiar group of films, what is overlooked in this analysis is the fact that the voice-over in film noir is of course overwhelmingly male, and the figure that resists this ‘omnivorous discourse’ is almost without exception female.

Harry Dean Stanton as Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas, 20th Century Fox, 1984

This is true also of the other film Docherty analyses from this perspective, Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984), where the male protagonist’s (Travis played by Harry Dean Stanton) re-entry into language is set against the visibility of his wife and mother of his child, Jane (Nastassia Kinski), who is shown working in a peep-show. Docherty notes that the framing of two female characters in the film, Jane and Travis’s sister-in-law and substitute mother for his child, Ann (Aurore Clément), is significantly different than that of the other (incidentally all male) characters. When the camera approaches each woman for the first time it does so from behind, catching them in close-up when they look back over their shoulder:

The movement is extremely conventional in its production of the illusion of spatial-ontological-depth within its frame. What will happen in the rest of the film, however, is a refusal of such figural depth, its collapsing back into the two-dimensionality of discourse, and its redrawing under the heading of narrative discourse. (Docherty 1996, 162)

Docherty argues that the film hinges not only on Travis’s re-entry into language, but ultimately on his ability to narrativise his journey from silence into speech. The climax of the film then is ultimately ‘discursive, an exercise in narrative’, and it is significant that although the scene where Travis narrates his experiences takes place in the peep-show where Jane works, Travis and Jane cannot see each other, but can only hear each other’s voices. For Docherty, this signals ‘a refusal of the figural visual depth which cinema explicitly exists to explore’ (Docherty 1996, 165).

As such, whereas in Double Indemnity we can detect ‘an incipient postmodern appeal to the priority of figure’ (Docherty 1996, 166), Paris, Texas – in a modern mood typical of Wenders – denies ‘the radical alterity of a figural space in all its sensuousness and immediacy’ (Docherty 1996, 165). However, while Lyotard himself commented: ‘I did not try in Discours, figure to oppose language and image. I was suggesting that a (discursive) principle of readability and a (figural) principle of unreadability shared one in the other’ (Lyotard 1984, 17), there is an associative rhetoric at work which encourages the identification of ‘image’ with ‘figure’ and ‘word’ with ‘discourse’. Furthermore, understanding the foreclosure of the maternal as precipitating modernity invites a connection between the female body and the figural and, by extension, between ‘woman’ and ‘spectacle’, if not in Lyotard per se, at least in its applications. This brings us back to the ‘eroticised feminine’ and suggests that whether configured as enabling (in the sense of Docherty’s ‘radical alterity’) or disabling (in the sense of Mulvey’s ‘fascination with woman as surface’) there is a strong and persistent tendency to at least imply some sort of gendered coincidence between word/image and discourse/figure.

In another sense, the idea of a figural activity operating within and against discursive activity underwrote the extension of Derridean deconstruction into film theory. As D.N. Rodowick has argued, after the failure of Metz’z ‘cinesemiology’, film semiotics was reconceptualised as the problem of filmic ‘writing’ in the Derridean sense. This was articulated as the ‘film-work’ by Thierry Kuntzel and as ‘cinécriture’ by Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier. As Rodowick noted, this extended the deconstructive project beyond its concentration on the Saussurean sign and invited an investigation of the figural activity operating in the film-work (the term ‘filmwork’ being a reference to the Freudian ‘dream-work’, picked up by Derrida as a particular kind of ‘writing’) (Rodowick 1985, 36).

While the deconstructive project never drifted far from psychoanalysis, it looked to the later, more ‘textual’, Freud for its focus. Derrida’s 1972 essay, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, traced Freud’s development from Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895) to ‘Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad’ (1925) in terms of Freud’s rejection of the idea of dream interpretation as a science of symbols and move towards the idea of the dream as a sort of originary psychical writing. In his 1976 essay, ‘A Note Upon the Filmic Apparatus’, Kuntzel took Derrida’s essay as his starting point and compared the cinematic apparatus and Freud’s ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’.5 For Kuntzel (as for Baudry), the narrative principle of causality and the technological conditions of the fiction film’s presentation impose an illusion of presence on the spectator. The task of textual analysis therefore must be to ‘rewrite the spectacle in the form of a text’ (Kuntzel 1978, 42).

Kuntzel noted that the passage from the celluloid strip to the projected strip is described in film in the same technical terms that Freud used to describe the discontinuous functioning of the perception consciousness system. Freud called this a ‘flicker’, which Kuntzel noted as ‘a flash mechanism popular in experimental cinema’, a technique that disrupts the persistence of vision. Kuntzel extended the comparison with the idea that while the ‘perception-consciousness system’ is submitted to the projected film, the unconscious could grasp ‘another space, another time, another logic – the film stock to which it is structurally close? A frame in the film stock: “invisible” in the projected film, not registered consciously has an effect elsewhere, unconsciously’ (Kuntzel 1976, 271). Thus, the analogies between discontinuity, the flicker, and the subliminal image bring together the psychic apparatus and the filmic apparatus. As a counter to the ‘flowing spectacle’ that the fiction film imposes on the spectator, Kuntzel suggested the idea of the film stock as ‘a virtual film, the-film-beneath-the-film, the other film’. Finally, with evident satisfaction, he writes: ‘At last a film text’ (Kuntzel 1976, 271).

For Ropars-Wuilleumier on the other hand, the hieroglyph and the ideogram provide a possible point of departure for a film semiotics looking to account for the heterogeneity of the cinematic signifier. However, as I argue elsewhere, when Eisenstein’s ‘very “derridien” insistence on looking for a linguistic model in non-alphabetic forms’ (Ropars-Wuilleumier quoted and translated in Oswald 1986, 318) was reconsidered and reconfigured in the work of Ropars-Wuilleumier, Eisenstein’s emphasis on the emotional and visceral impact of the film image was lost in favour of the textual emphasis that was characteristic of film theory at the time.6

Trying to re-‘write’ the spectacle of cinema to arrive at the ‘text’ could thus be said to be endemic in film theory. These attempts have been ably assisted by applications of both Freudian and Lacanian insights, shaped by the particular preoccupations of feminist film theory, Marxist film theory, Derridean film theory, and so on, as well as theories of modernity and postmodernity. In most cases, it constitutes a critical strategy to resist the lure of the image, while in others (for example, Docherty) it constitutes a way of highlighting that very resistance within cinema itself.

Of course, not everyone signed up to psychoanalysis and after its heyday in the 1970s it was succeeded by sociological, cultural, historical, cognitive and more recently, phenomenological and philosophical approaches to film. From a theoretical perspective, Deleuze has superseded both Derrida and Lacan as the father figure of film theory. That said, while ‘cinepsychoanalysis’ has long been presumed dead or, as Lapsley describes it, at the very least ‘a discredited relic of a less enlightened time’ (Lapsley 2009, 15), film theorists are returning to psychoanalysis and reassessing its relevance to contemporary visual culture. For instance, like Kuntzel (who himself moved from film theory to video art), Thomas Elsaesser has returned to Freud’s Mystic Writing-Pad as a model for understanding the simultaneous operations of inscription/recording and of storage/retrieval in contemporary cinema, now making the transition from the photographic to the digital. In the process, Elsaesser re-imagines Freud the ‘media theorist’. Here – perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly in the context of this discussion – Elsaesser revisits Freud’s interest in temporality as well as forms of inscription. Arguing that the work that arose out of what he calls the ‘French Freud’ focused on issues to do with ‘perception, visuality and the opticalspecular’’ (Elsaesser 2009, 102), Elseasser asserts that his work, drawing on Derrida, Mary Ann Doane and Friedrich Kittler, will involve, among other things, a concentration on trace, inscription, writing, and the body as text (Elsaesser 2009, 102-103).

Lapsley, too, advocates moving away from the stress on spectatorship that characterised the psychoanalysis of the 1970s and instead reinventing it in terms of the therapeutic model itself. Instead of applying psychoanalytic concepts to film, the critic would attend to the film in a similar fashion as the analyst to the analysand. As the analysand entering analysis could be said to be stuck in a rut enacting the same old scenario again and again, so too was film theory stuck in the rut of reductive, ‘phallogocentric’ readings of ‘texts’ as mere confirmation of psychoanalytic principles. The task of the critic therefore, like the function of the analyst, must be to enable a situation where alternative scenarios can be envisaged, and the subject can thus move forward.

In this context, perhaps it is worth noting that Lapsley takes Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout (1970) as his example, a film where the conflict between representational systems is central to the dynamic and where the narrative impulse towards comprehension is set beside a fantasy scenario rendered insistently in images. Lapsley’s psychoanalytically informed approach is analogous to this, insofar as it is sensitive to the struggle between the desire for definitive ‘meaning’ and the inevitable failure of that desire when faced with the ineluctable specificity of the film material. As Lapsley argues, this does not require abandoning the impulse however – as in the psychoanalytic encounter, the ‘work’ takes place in the process of narrativisation – but rather recognising the ways in which its inherent limitations are simultaneously reductive and productive.

Both Elsaesser’s and Lapsley’s contributions are progressive therefore, in that they are enabling rather than reactionary. Their respective engagements with psychoanalytic models are ‘positive’, in the sense of promoting an engagement with the state of the art and the discipline, as opposed to the largely negative critiques of cinematic specularity that characterised the 1970s. That said, an insistently textual and/or discursive trace remains; most obviously in Elsaesser, but implicitly also in Lapsley’s ‘therapeutic’ model.

Perhaps this is unavoidable in an attitude that takes its cue from the ‘talking cure’. To argue this point has inevitably involved generalizations, over-simplifications and omissions, if not outright inaccuracies. And, of course, I am talking only of tendencies, not absolute rules. In short, the primary aim here is not to illuminate, nor to impugn, individual theories or theorists, but instead to point up an essential attitude, an anxiety even, that appears to have inflected – and perhaps inhibited – our engagement with film. Film theory has been marked by a ‘refusal to see, a looking away’ (Mulvey & Wollen 1976, 36), and my suggestion is that this has achieved its fullest expression in those strands of film theory heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. These, in turn, have remained within a gendered conceptual framework whereby the discursive or the narrative is associated with the masculine and the image or spectacle is aligned with the feminine. This is not to reject these applications out of hand but rather to revisit this area with its blind spots in mind and to consider aspects that are perhaps at once obvious but often overlooked.

Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy | Creative Commons License 


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[1]  For a discussion of the psychoanalytic foundations of apparatus theory see Jacques- Alain Miller ‘La suture (Elements de la logique du significant).’ Les cahiers pour analyse 1 (Jan-Feb 1966): 37-49, translated as ‘Suture: Elements of the Logic of the Signifier.’ Screen 18.4 (Winter 1977-78): 35-47. For the most well known version of ‘suture’ in apparatus theory see Daniel Dayan, ‘The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.’ Film Quarterly 28.1: 22-31, and in response to this, William Rothman, ‘Against the System of Suture.’ Nichols, 1976: 451-59.

[2] See also Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field.’ Nichols, 1985: 40-57. First published in French in Cahiers du cinéma 229, 230, 231, 233 (1970-71).

[3] See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. J.T. Boulton. London: Basil Blackwell, 1987. First published in German in 1757.

[4] See ‘Figure Foreclosed.’ The Lyotard Reader. Ed. A. Benjamin. Blackwell: Oxford, 1989: 69-110; ‘Jewish Oedipus.’ Toward the Post-Modern. New Jersey: Humanities Press International, Inc.: 27-40.

[5] The Mystic Writing Pad was a children’s toy that Freud believed could provide a useful analogy for our perceptual apparatus, in that the Mystic Writing-Pad can provide both an ever ready receptive surface while retaining permanent traces of the notes that have been made on it.

[6] See Paula Quigley, ‘Eisenstein and “filmic writing”’ in J. Dunne and P. Quigley (Eds) The Montage Principle: Eisenstein in New Critical and Cultural Contexts. Rodopi Press, 2004: 153-169.