top of page



The Gaze



In ‘The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,’ Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) effectively redefines Sartre’s concept of the gaze. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) had previously considered what it was exactly that makes other people (the Other) stand out as people as opposed to something more mundane like a mannequin, robot, or a puppet. A puppet, for example, does not change the repose I seem to enjoy with my environment as dramatically as another person seems to. In my solitude, I rule the space around me but when my environment is intruded upon by another person I have to share it with this Other in an indeterminate manner. The freedom of the Other destabilizes my own freedom and disintegrates the preconceptions I had previously existed in. As a human being, I naturally tend to objectify the world around me but I must also presume that the Other also objectifies the world as well, including me in it. I have now become an object in the Other’s vision and, because I realize this innately, I have become an object even in my own opinion. I am imprisoned in the Other’s vision and, therefore, pass judgment on myself as a mere object. This causes a shameful feeling similar to if you were to spy through a keyhole and became surprised to see another eyeball staring back at you. If you privately do something so natural as to pick at your nose, for example, and come to realize that someone was watching you the whole time – you are inevitably reduced to shame.

Sartre’s gaze has broader applications, however, and it does not necessarily have to be an actual eye that puts one to shame but it could also be, as Sartre tells us, the rustling of leaves, the sound of footsteps, or anything that a subject suddenly believes to be an unexpected presence of another. Lacan was particularly interested in this aspect of Sartre’s gaze that is “not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” as well as the fact that “the Other surprises him, the subject, as entirely hidden gaze.” Lacan takes Sartre’s concept of the gaze one step further by asserting that the presence of another person is irrelevant altogether because it is really our own act of looking that causes this feeling. Lacan even goes as far to say that the “gaze is everything in the field of vision except the actual look of the person looking.”


Lacan writes “In our relation to things, in so far as this relation is constituted by the way of vision, and ordered in the figures of representation, something slips, passes, is transmitted, from stage to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it that is what we call the gaze.” When you think about it, the world we see around us is, in reality, examined all inside our head. However, because it feels as if people and objects around us are exactly this, around us, it can only be that the mind reprojects these images back onto the outside world from which they originally came. Lacan describes this process of vision as “in the depths of my eye the picture is painted. The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am not in the picture. That which is light looks at me, and by means of that light in the depths of my eye, something is painted.” I can see only with the aid of light but this necessarily means that I can be seen with this very same light. My open field-of-vision is also the Other’s open field-of-vision. The view which enables me to see things around me leaves a defenseless opening to my own self in which I am consequently judged by my surroundings. This is why Lacan says that something as innocuous as a “sardine can” can see you because if I see a “sardine can” then I know intuitively that it is possible that I can be seen as well. Lacan labels this aspect of the gaze, where the individual seems to stick out to draw the attention of the gaze, with negative connotations by calling it “the stain.” “The stain” distinguishes between the eye and the gaze by establishing that seeing means a “given-to-be-seen.” As “the stain,” the subject unconsciously imagines s/he is somehow a blemish on the landscape that sticks out like a sore thumb for any viewer to see.

This awareness is a fundamental fact of life and is constantly subversive. As gloomy as it seems, this self-imposed judgment is consciousness and enables us to be social animals through our awareness of eachother. Lacan paraphrases Merleau-Ponty, “we are beings who are looked at” and it is this “which makes us consciousness.” Moreover, there is a “pre-existence of a gaze” because this effect is all together exaggerated by the fact that “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.” We imagine that we are forever being watched in the way Santa Clause and God always seem to be looking over our shoulder. Indeed, as Sartre has told us before, God is merely the concept of the Other just taken to its ultimate limit. Precisely because the gaze is everywhere, it is rare that we recognize it. With the advance of technology, however, the effect of the gaze might be enhanced more and more with the increase of hidden cameras predicted by the nightmarish visions of Orwell.

Lacan writes “consciousness, in its illusion of seeing itself seeing itself, finds its basis in the inside-outside structure of the gaze.” A Chinese philosopher named Choang-tsu once dreampt he was a butterfly and awoke only to forever question whether he really was a man who dreampt he was a butterfly or whether he might actually be a butterfly dreaming that it is Choang-tsu. Lacan adds a twist to this ancient parable and suggests that, when Choang-tsu awoke, he necessarily conformed himself to the identity imposed upon him by his environment (the gaze as Choang-tsu) and, therefore, was caught in the social butterfly net of the Other. While he was asleep, on the other hand, his unconscious was set free. This is reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proclamation that “Social man lives constantly outside himself” as well as Freud’s subsequent assertion that civilization is merely repression. Lacan now realizes that it is the persistent gaze that conforms the self in every waking moment and asserts “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside.”

“In the depths of my eye the picture is painted. The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am not in the picture.” Yet, to consider any picture I have to be involved in it somehow because the picture does not even exist, as far as I am concerned, without me. ‘I’ is always the ultimate reference point. In the midst of the visual bombardment of the world, the observer is the constant that is an underlying common denominator of one. The vision which is so fundamental in constituting the subject is accessed only internally and so the subject has to rely on imagination to see himself in it. It is through this process that “in the scopic field, the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say I am a picture.” In this way, Lacan points primarily to the picture as “the function in which the subject has to map himself as such.” The picture, then, is basically what the individual sees and attempts to somehow assimilate into and “If I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot.”

The effect of the gaze is evident among the most basic forms of life. It is often observed how animals mimic their surroundings and eachother, which Lacan explains as “simply a way of defending oneself against light.” In order to hide from the vision of predators, “It is to this stain shape that the crustacean adapts itself. It becomes a picture, it is inscribed in the picture. This, strictly speaking, is the origin of mimicry.” Lacan points out that the point of mimicry is “exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.” What distinguishes human beings, however, is that they are “not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. How? In so far as he isolates the function of the screen and plays with it. Man, in effect, knows how to play with the masks as that beyond which there is a gaze. The screen is the locus of mediation.” Humans pick and choose between an infinite number of cultural images to mediate between themself and their environment. For example, we might see people wear the military camouflage, mentioned earlier, in an urban environment during peacetime instead. Basically, the screen is the facade we build around our self in order to divert or attract attention according to the facts of each particular scenario. People tend to dress themself according to the fashions of the time in order to blend in and avoid the ridicule of peers. However, in order to win the admiration of peers, particularly sexual mates, an individual has to somehow distinguish themself in an attractive manner. Wearing camouflage pants in the city might not serve the original intent of the manufacture but it may serve, however, for an individual to attract a mate by sticking out from the rest of the crowd. It is in this attraction, called travesty, where “the relation between the gaze and what one wishes to see involves a lure. The subject is presented as other than he is.”

Lacan reiterates, for us, Caillois‘ observations on how animals use the screen to attract and deter their surrounding by the three different means of mimicry, intimidation, or travesty. It was also Callois who first observed “the facts of mimicry are similar, at the animal level, to what, in the human being, is manifested as art, or painting.” Indeed, Lacan notes that even when artists attempt to portray something as objective as a landscape, there is “something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze.” It could be viewed that the artist intends to impose his will on others but Lacan believes, instead, that the artist is really saying “You want to see? Well take a look at this! He gives something for the eye to feed on, but he invites the person to whom this picture is presented to lay down his gaze there as one lays down ones weapons.” Painting for Lacan is an unusual phenomenon where the gaze is pacified and tamed and “Something is given not so much to the gaze as to the eye, something that involves abandonment, the laying down, of the gaze.”

Lacan notes that “the world is all-seeing, but it is not exhibitionistic it does not provoke our gaze.” What is it, exactly, that compels us to focus in on one particular thing and recognize it as an object – the glass, the table, or the chair in front of me, for example? Why is it that we do not recognize all these objects together as one whole object that we might call a glastablchair. This type of thinking is essentially the thinking of babies who naturally do not classify the surrounding environment but see it, instead, as one blurry whole. In fact, newborns can’t even distinguish between the world and themself because life for them, as it actually is before social concepts are imposed upon us, is one unified fluid experience. In reality, nothing exists independently and, therefore, any assumption that man exists apart from nature is really irrational. What we are doing, therefore, when we name an object is denying that we are that particular object. Labeling objects around us effectively anchors us and saves us from the indifferent flux of our world. Our own individuality, that we tend to value so highly, requires this differentiation.

Lacan is obviously dealing with complicated subject matter here but he is also notoriously difficult to understand because he uses idiosyncratic nomenclature to define these concepts. Lacan, himself, redefined some of his own terms over the years and so they remain ambiguous even today. One term essential to his vocabulary is what Lacan introduces as the objet a (a is simply the first letter of autre which is French for Other) which he defines “The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ.” So we see that the objet a is essentially the focal object that we discussed in the previous paragraph that works to distinguish and register the self in a world of objects. The objet a is not a particular object, however, and represents for the individual the perpetual lack which s/he cannot achieve and only “the gaze contains objet a.” It is evident, no matter how hard we try, that we might financially own the objects we see but we can never become one with them. Indeed, we are the possessions of our own possessions.

So again we return to Lacan’s observation that “the world is all-seeing, but it is not exhibitionistic it does not provoke our gaze.” The eye originally receives light from everything, near and far, simultaneously and so there is always a leveling of the observed space that consequently flattens the entire picture. “What characterizes the image is that it shows” and it is only now that depth-of-field is imagined in our vision through the human concept of space which is reimposed almost immediately on our perceptions. As things begin to stick out and become closer and farther from us, we begin to focus in on particular components of the overall impression as objects. The individual looks for the objet a and Lacan finds “The objet a in the field of the visible is the gaze.” Sartre’s gaze felt in the eyes of the Other is consistent in Lacan’s new concept of the gaze because “The gaze is this object lost and suddenly refound in the conflagration of shame, by the introduction of the other. Up to that point, what is the subject trying to see? What he is trying to see, make no mistake, is the object as absence. What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind the curtain. There he will phantasize any magic of presence, the most graceful of girls, for example, even if on the other side is only a hairy athlete.”

bottom of page