The Future of an Illusion
Constance Penley
“...And is it not the case that in our civilisation the relations between the sexes are disturbed by an erotic illusion or a number of such illusions?” [Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 34]
-debates about representation and sexual difference
-the place of woman in classical Hollywood cinema
“...they are at least symptomatic of a certain kind of theoretical approach- feminist and psychoanalytic- to the work on women and media that began in the early seventies.”
Beginning in the early seventies “sexual difference” rapidly established itself as an important analytical category for many feminist theorists. In an initial bifurcation that invariably led to misunderstandings, sexual difference became both the watchword for “New French Feminism”, with its emphasis on, and celebration of, essential differences between men and women, and also the working notion for feminists looking to Jacques Lacan’s rereading of Freud for a more complex account of subjectivity and sexual identity than any then available.
One: The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary
I would like to look at some of the presuppositions of one contemporary avant-garde movement from the point of view of these new approached based on Freudian and Lacanian theory because I think they can illuminate some of the difficulties often found in the meeting of political and avant-garde practice.
The Imaginary Signifier (Christian Metz)
“The imaginary is also what has to be rediscovered precisely in order to avoid being swallowed up by it: a never ending task.”
At the centre of Christian Metz’s discussion of the psychoanalytic constitution on the cinematic signifier, he warns that the film which would aim to be a film of intervention must take into consideration the cinematic signifier’s higher degree of imaginariness in comparison to, for example, the theatre.
Metz emphasizes that what is “characteristic of the cinema is not the imaginary that it may happen to represent, it is the imaginary that it is from the start.” Basic to the constitution of the cinematic signifier is that it is absent: unlike in the theatre where real persons share the time and space of the spectator, the cinema screen is always the “other scene”; it is a recording and what it records is not there at the moment of its projection.
But even more fundamental is the way the cinematic signifier combines presence and absence- it is more “there” than almost any other medium (because of its density of perceptual registers) and less “there” at the same time (because it is always only a replica of what is no longer there). This combination of presence and absence exactly describes the characteristic functioning of the Imaginary according to Lacan: the ego is constituted by an image, that is, something that is a reflection (which is there) of the body (which is not really there “in” the mirror).
Thus the cinematic signifier is imaginary in its very constitution as a signifier. It is also imaginary, Metz argues, because the screen reactivates the mirror stage described by Jacques Lacan (or at least the images have their power of fascination because the subject has already undergone the mirror stage). Any relation to an image is imaginary; that is, since the ego itself is constituted by images (the first being the image of the subject in the mirror) and all the rest of the images being doubles of this double, then it is impossible to separate images from this fundamental imaginary operation.
Metz shifts the ground of all previous discussions of the processes of identification in film, maintaining that the primary identification is not with the characters on the screen but with the subject’s own activity of looking.
“In other words, the spectator identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception: as condition of possibility of the perceived and hence as a kind transcendental subject, anterior to every there is”
14: fetishism and the primal scene, “Every film is a fiction film” [Metz]
At the level of cinema as a social institution Metz speaks of the role of the cinema spectator as essentially voyeuristic: participating in a form of scopophilia not normally sanctioned by society, we sit in the theatre in darkness and solitude looking toward the framed screen as through a keyhole. This is one of the reasons why it is so startling when a character looks at us