- The Real Gaze:Film Theory after Lacan
With The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan, Todd McGowan makes a subtle but potentially profound move, the kind that makes you think, Why hasn't this been done more often? Rather than making overly broad claims about "the cinema," he uses Lacanian film theory to interrogate actual film texts, and not just a few films that support his thesis. In his rereading and application of this theory, McGowan surveys the films of thirteen directors and two film movements, examining the ways in which the gaze functions within these films. For McGowan, however, the gaze is not the gaze of traditional Lacanian film theory. Rather than locating the gaze within the subjectivity of the spectator, McGowan locates the gaze within the objectivity of the film text; this interpretation of the gaze McGowan terms "new Lacanian film theory." Traditional film theorists (McGowan discusses specifically Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, and Laura Mulvey) have Lacan all wrong, and it is because of this misreading of Lacan and his conceptualization of the gaze that "film theory today is almost nonexistent" (ix). Using this reconfigured, "real" Lacanian gaze, McGowan makes it his primary goal to demonstrate the explanatory power that theory can have for films, even within the contemporary academic landscape of a reception studies that demands highly specific contextualization of film texts, viewers, and viewing conditions.
In fact, McGowan is determined to integrate his revised Lacanian theory into the reception theories that dominate contemporary film theory, and it might seem an odd marriage. The universalizing claims of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the strict particularity of reception theory make strange bedfellows indeed. The new Lacanian film theory of The Real Gaze, however, avoids the "conceptual arrogance" of traditional Lacanian film theory, and it does so by accounting for the particularity of specific films and the ways in which these films encompass various potential gazes (5). Here the gaze is conceptualized not as a totalizing approach to the cinema taken by all spectators but, rather, as a position offered by particular films.
This approach may seem, at first glance, to smack of the universality and viewer determinism of the apparatus theories popular in the film theory of the 1970s. McGowan makes clear, though, that within his theoretical framework film texts themselves do not determine the experiences of viewers. The critic may interpret the positions that films present; these positions confront the viewer in specific ways, but the actual experience of the viewer is dependent on the context of the viewing. It is a necessary compromise between theory and the "real" viewing experience of a particular spectator, and The Real Gaze manages this difficult territory quite adeptly.
McGowan accomplishes this compromise largely through his reconceptualization of the Lacanian gaze. As McGowan sees it, traditional Lacanian film theory has misinterpreted Lacan's notion of the gaze: the gaze lies not with the subject but with the object. "The gaze is the point at which the subject loses its subjective privilege and becomes wholly embodied in the object. . . . Understood in Lacan's [End Page 57] own terms, the gaze is not the spectator's external view of the filmic image, but the mode in which the spectator is accounted for within the film itself" (7–8). According to McGowan's reading of Lacan, the gaze is the space that films carve out for viewers, and it is within these spaces that viewers confront their fantasies, desires, and ideological inclinations. The gaze serves either to disrupt or to reinforce a viewer's sense of self, and this effect has political ramifications for the cinema. Rather than a subjective force of fantasmatic ideological power wielded by a spectator, "the gaze is nothing but our presence in what we are looking at, but we are nothing but this gaze" (210).
McGowan breaks from traditional Lacanian film theory in another way, namely, in his engagement with the potential political radicalism of cinema. Most traditional Lacanian film theorists begin their critique of cinema in a hostile place, their task being to expose the...