The Ambassadors' Body: Unscreening the Gaze* Henry Krips Communication Department University of Pittsburh
"Screen theory" developed in the 1970s from the work of a group of French and
English film theorists including Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis
Comolli, and Stephen Heath.  In the form in which it has come to influencecultural studies,
it combines elements of an eclectic range of theoretical perspectives, including the early 
structuralist work of Roland Barthes which proposes that the meanings of signifiers are
determined by their position within a network of oppositions and equivalences;
Louis Althusser's conceptualization of interpellation as a process of meconnaissance
(misrecognition);  and Jacques Lacan's seminal work on the mirror stage as a foundational
step in the child becoming a subject.  
    
Screen theory treats filmic images as signifiers encoding meanings but also, thanks to the
apparatus through which the images are projected, as mirrors in which, by (mis)recognizing
themselves, viewers accede to subjectivity.  One of its major strengths lies in its techniques for
uncovering ideological messages encrypted in images, messages which are taken to have a direct
constitutive impact upon their viewers.  In the context of the 70s, this aspect of the theory
contributed importantly to the development of a politics of the image which critiqued the
mass media on the assumption that the images which they circulate shape the subjectivities
of their viewers.  Such a view, divorced from the heady mixture of "high theory" and left
politics associated with Screen theory, remains the cornerstone of much contemporary
censorship practice as well as P.C. politics.

According to Screen theory, in addition to functioning as a vehicle for ideological meanings,
the filmic image operates as the site of a "gaze", meaning a place where viewers experience
themselves as under scrutiny.  The gaze is the mechanism through which the image imposes its
meanings, and thus creates constitutive effects.  As in the case of Foucault's panopticon, the
scrutiny characteristic of the gaze appears to come from outside the subject but in fact is a
mediated form of self-scrutiny.  Screen theory identifies the mechanism of the gaze with the
form of self-recognition described in Lacan's account of the mirror stage.  As Kaja Silverman
puts the position:
What Lacan designates the "gaze" also manifests itself intially within a space external
to the subject, first through the mother's look as it facilitates the "join" of  the infant
and the mirror image, and later through all the many other actual looks with which it
is confused. It is only at a second remove that the subject might be said to assume 
responsibility for "operating" the gaze by "seeing" itself being seen even when no
pair of eyes are trained upon it...this "seeing" of oneself being seen is experienced by 
the subject-of-consciousness...as a seeing of itself seeing itself.(Silverman 1992, 127)
From its inception, Screen theory suffered a major defect.  Since the late 50s, Lacan had
emphasized that accession to subjectivity is not merely a matter of imag-inary self-
(mis)recognition.  The human subject must also enter the symbolic order, that is fall
under the "law of the signifier", as well as come to terms with what Lacan called "the Real."
In its visual form, the Real comprises anxiety provoking breaks or anomolies in the visual field
where the system of perceptual categories falters, a "rupture between perception and 
consciousness" where viewers are jolted from their comfortably established habits of viewing by
failing to recognize what they perceive (Lacan 1981, 56).  According to the later Lacan, images
impact upon viewers through such manifestations of the Real, in particular through the effects
of self-scrutiny which they bring about.  Lacan's name for such effects is "the gaze".  He thus 
directly contradicts the Screen theoretic concept of the "gaze" as an externally projected form
of self-scrutiny operating through mirror effects.
     
From the point of view of Screen theory, this Lacanian reworking of the gaze suffers a 
major drawback.  By emphasizing points of rupture in the visual field rather than images
with specific ideological meanings, Lacan's views undermines the simple politics of the image
so important to media and film theorists of the 70s as well as more recent critics of less radical
persuasion.  On this basis Lacan's views are accused of being systematically apolitical, that is,
excluding the possibility of a politics of the image.  This criticism, to which I reply in detail in
my forthcoming Fetish:  An Erotics of Culture (Cornell UP, 1999), has become a central 
plank in contemporary critiques of Lacan as well as other "post-structuralists", such as Derrida.  

I respond to the criticism by considering two cases discussed by Lacan:  his own youthful
encounter with a glint of light reflecting from a sea-faring sardine can, and the historical
reception of Holbein's painting The Ambassadors.  In both cases, I show how the gaze depends 
upon ideological factors.  In particular, I argue that such factors provide the raw material from
which chains of unconscious associations are forged which connect elements of these visual
objects with the primal scene of lack.  Such chains of associations invest the objects as sites of
unrealistic anxiety, a necessary condition if, as Lacan claims, they are to function as sites of a
gaze.  It follows that there is no truth to the complaint that Lacanian mechanisms of
subjectification, of which the gaze is one, rule out a causal role for ideology.   What is true,
however - and here the basis of Screen theory'scriticism of Lacan becomes clear - is that according
to Lacan the meanings of images are not in any straightforward sense
"reflected" in viewer subjectivities.  It follows that filmic images cannot be critiqued simply
on the basis that, by encoding ideological meanings, they reproduce existing ideological
structures.  This means not that a Lacanian perspective is apolitical but rather that it requires
a more complex politics of the image than Screen theory offers.

It is also true, and here I agree with the critics of Lacan, that in particular cases he presents
the gaze as if, like the glint of light reflecting from the sardine can, it were an objective
structure, to which all viewers, past present and future, passively respond in the same way.
I argue that, on the contrary, in its Lacanian form the gaze is a relational structure poised
delicately between a visual object and individual viewers, its effects mediated by their differing
positions within their disparate ideological horizons.  Thus, there is no single transhistorical
"audience" all of whom experience the effects of its gaze in a similar way.  On the contrary,
as in Lacan's encounter at sea with the sardine can, different viewers have different responses,
only some of which fall under the category of the gaze.  For instance, Lacan's sea-faring
companion, Petit-Jean, laughs off the encounter, and seems to miss the gaze entirely.
He gets the joke, as we might say, but not the gaze, whereas for Lacan, things are quite the
other way around.
   
I also argue that in his account of Holbein's painting, Lacan errs by focussing exclusively upon
the famous anamorphic projection of the skull.  It is true that this formal element of the 
picture constitutes one potential site for the gaze but it is by no means the only one.
I present two others.  One is the picture's "hyper-realism", and the other an instability in its
psychological distance from the viewer.  This raises the possibility that if, as Lacan claims,
the picture "looks back" at its viewers then it is in a highly overdetermined way, from the canvas
as a whole, rather than, as Lacan claims, from a single formal element, namely the image of the
skull.  

Despite these concessions to Lacan's critics, my theoretical account of the gaze remains firmly
Lacanian.  In particular, I reject Screen theory's account of the gaze as specular in favor of
Lacan's rival claim that the gaze is a site at which the Real disrupts the visual field.  My
differences from Lacan reside in an attempt to historicize his work by showing the way in which
ideological factors mediate the effect of visual objects upon their viewers.


*(From Chapter Six of my forthcoming Fetish:  An Erotics of Culture to appear with Cornell
UP, 1999;  an earlier version of this same chapter will appear in Chapter Seven of Tom
Rosteck ed., At The Intersection to appear with  Guilford, 1998).

Return to Lookout