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  • Looking at Love an Ethics of Vision
  • Mieke Bal (bio)
Kaja Silverman. The Threshold Of The Visible World. New York: Routledge, 1996.

“The eye can confer the active gift of love upon bodies which have long been accustomed to neglect and disdain,” writes Kaja Silverman in her most recent book, The Threshold of the Visible World. The sentence neatly summarizes her project. “The active gift of love” is the central concept of this book and indicative of the utopian dimension of the theory of love she develops.

With Lacan as her primary interlocutor, she sets out to answer a question of one of her students: “does psychoanalysis have a theory of love?” Strange as it might seem, psychoanalysis, so often associated with an excessive interest in sexuality, has not seemed to believe in love. Within the rigorous framework of a discipline that has no use for love and theorizes a bleak view of human nature, Silverman sets out to think through the questions that every parent is at a loss, yet needs, to address: what is love, how can choices in love be culturally encouraged, reoriented, or discouraged? Lacan’s texts on the imaginary order and the visual field, and the imaginary’s stubborn presence within the symbolic order, remain a key resource for those who, like Silverman, wish to understand and analyze, critique and refocus contemporary culture with an eye open to contradictions and complexities. 1

The ground for love, the ability to love, is idealization, Silverman claims. Without idealization life would be unbearable, but idealizing is influenced by cultural norms and values that we internalize from early childhood on. Silverman’s project—”to articulate the psychic and aesthetic conditions under which we might be carried away from both ideality and the self, and situated in an identificatory relation to [culturally] despised bodies” [2]—is an attempt to put pressure on two elements of this interaction, “idealization” and “self,” but as she does so she acknowledges the force of the transhistorical, heavy, thick structure of the psyche that is hard, if not impossible, to change.

This project, the development of an “ethics of vision,” forms a key part within the larger framework of Silverman’s work. In her first book, The Subject of Semiotics, she argues for and explains the semiotic status of psychoanalysis and the indispensable contribution of psychoanalysis to semiotics. The book remains a valuable handbook for an understanding of the importance of such divergent theorists as De Saussure and Benveniste, Kristeva and Peirce, Freud and Lacan, and the theorists of suture for a coherent and comprehensive theory of culture. One example that will speak to many a cultural analyst is the way Silverman disentangles, and then connects again, the often conflated conceptual pairs of metaphor and metonymy, condensation and displacement, and paradigm and syntagma, showing that the first pair is situated on the level of interactions between the signifier and [End Page 59] the signified, the second on the level of the signified, and the third on the level of the structuration of the signifier. 2

With this book, then, Silverman lays the foundation for a psychoanalytical semiotic that is nevertheless radically cultural in orientation: no conflation or confusion of psyche and culture, no flattening of the one through the other, but an integration that demonstrates convincingly that what happens within a psyche is irrevocably cultural and that every cultural expression entertains a relationship with one or more psyches. The structural similarities and interactions between the two then seem self-evident. But how these interactions work is explained in a manner that renders them analyzable.

Silverman is in the habit of raising questions that remain unanswered, and devoting her next book to them. The Subject devoted much attention and analytical energy to filmic images, notably through suture theory, in which the technique of “shot-reverse shot” is central. This technique consists of successive images: first of a character looking at something, and then of what that character presumably sees. This would be the cinematic equivalent of what narratology calls transitions of focalization, likewise a technique used to “suture” image to diegetic character in order to stimulate identification. As in narratology, the question then arises: what exactly...

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pp. 59-72
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