Guide to Screen, 28: 1, Winter 1987 (Special on 'Difference')
NB I have noticed, rather late, that most of these pieces (except Greig), are collected in Screen (1992) The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality, London: Routledge. This Reader also contains work on male sexuality, and 'race' and postcolonialism.
'Difference and its Discontents', 1--9
The notion of sexual difference
gradually came to replace the sexual division of labour as a major
factor affecting femininity, especially when the work of Lacan became
better-known in the mid-1970s. In Mulvey's terms,
'the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the
penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based
the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the
symbolic order and the law of the father'. The problem with the old
approaches was identified as failing to explain the origin of
differences between men and women in the first place -- what was needed
instead was an account of the 'production of differences through systems
of representation... differences that cannot be known in advance' (Adams
This led to seeing some fundamental
representational, semiotic mechanism at work to generate sexual
differences. Via Lacan, semiotics could also be joined to Freud's
analysis of the workings of the unconscious. One problem that arose
early, was whether or not a the processes of constructing difference
were traceable to biology, and the visible differences between male and
female genitals [if so, little could be done about it and
the division might seem 'natural']. Freud himself was ambiguous
on this matter, stressing genital variations as significant on the one
hand, while arguing that pure masculinity and femininity were merely
theoretical constructions on the other. The work on castration with its
unique power to produce super egos and the rest seems to imply some
important biological foundation, however, somehow privileging the main
difference between men and women among all the other theoretical
Mulvey offered a particular variant of
the notion of difference in analysing cinema's text and spectator.
Pleasure was divided between active male and passive female, as were the
various looks and narratives. Challenges to Mulvey included:
Mulvey (1981) herself finally turned to
the question of the female spectator, and introduced ['Mulvey 2', as it is known in the trade] -- a female
spectator can now have a 'libidinal
tomboyish activity' as well as the traditional passivity, but only at
the price of unbearable tension, since it trespasses on masculinity.
Mulvey (1985) begins to
rethink the whole motion of dualism, and tries to find a place for women
outside of [their positioning]. A feminist politics should operates in
that small space between binary oppositions,
'as the point of disruption and contradiction'.
It was soon clear that lesbian and gay
perspectives were also asserting the rights to engage in politics.
Difference theory had not managed homosexuality particularly well,
before, part because of biologism -- it became difficult to think of
homosexuality as suitably Other from heterosexuality, leading to at best
a 'polite silence' (6).
Female homoeroticism was also under theorised.
Otherness had historically considered
all sorts of distinctions, not just those pertaining to gender. For De
is a fundamental category of human thought', although Firestone believed
the category grew out of the history of sexual division. As a result,
feminist revolt would end the cultural importance of otherness.
However, those who do not share this
optimism have other alternatives:
Finally, arguments about sexual
difference do not always conform to all the variants of feminist
politics -- clearly, politics centred on 'an interest group attempting
to declare its own specificity against an oppressive norm'
(9) would find a plea for differences unhelpful.
Adams, P (1979) 'Note on Sexual Division and Sexual Differences, m/f: 52
De Beauvoir, S (1972) The Second Sex, Harmondsworth, Penguin
Ellis, J (1982 ) Visible Fictions, London: Routledge
Firestone, S (1971) The Dialectic of Sex, New York: Bantam Books
Screen, 25, 4 - 5: 36 - 48
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen
16, 3: 13
on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Inspired by
"Duel in the Sun"', Framework,
15 - 16 - 17: 15
(1985) 'Changes', Discourse
Neale, S (1983) 'Masculinity as Spectacle', Screen 24, 6: 2 - 16
(no date supplied) 'The Difficulty of Difference', Wide Angle, 5,1: 4--15
(no date supplied) 'The
Problem of Sexual Difference and Identity', Wide
Angle, 6, 3: 16 - 23
'Language and Sexual Difference', 10--25
Film theorists are particularly
interested in Lacan who offered a materialist view of subjectivity,
unlike the formalism of semiotics and the functionalism of Marxist
cultural analysis. However, there are problems with accounts of the
formation of the subject in language and sexual difference in Lacan,
sufficient to question whether Lacanian theory does offer such a useful
interrelation of subjectivity, sexuality and language.
'The Formation of the Subject in
For Lacan , the subject is an effect
created by language, and the means of signification themselves are
sexualised --'the positions of male and female identity are associated
with the constitutive processes of enunciation' (10). Briefly, Lacan on
language argues that signifiers are separated from signifieds, and the
former have their own dynamics -- they do not exist merely to represent
some outside referent, nor some idealist subject
[although both can anchor the sliding signifiers from time to
time]. This is connected to the notion of the unconscious in Freud --
metaphor and metonymy describe the principles of condensation and
displacement, and the whole unconscious becomes widened to include an
unconsciousness of the process by which subjects are formed in and by
language. Thus, specifically, repression involves a metaphor, where the
signifier of a sexual trauma is substituted by another term: but the
subject remains largely unconscious of this transfer of meaning. Dreams
can reveal parts of this linguistic structure. Language constitutes the
subject in an unconscious manner, hence
'the unconscious is structured like a language'. This view 'decentres'
and relegates consciousness, and also separates the idea of the
unconscious from anything to do with biology or psychology.
However, there is a problem. The
structure, of the unconscious, is seen as
'an ideal form existing in a dialectical relation to the subject,
who must realise the potential effects of the structure at the level of
experience' (12). This somehow validates the experience of the subject,
as in empiricism. There is also some tautology here -- the unconscious
is by definition something that the subject cannot know about but which
makes it possible for the subject itself to know things
(including the whole realm of the imaginary). This whole thing
depends on 'the figure of
misrecognition, the alleged failure of the subject to see the conditions
which govern recognition and identity' (12).
The Imaginary and the Symbolic
This relation is best explained in the
mirror phase. The infant between six and 18 months, still without
language, recognises its reflected image in a mirror, and thus grasps
the notion of a unity of the body and of the subject. However, this is
ambiguous, since it follows from an exterior stimulus, a difference
between the perceiving subject and the perceived image, and is usually
provided 'in the context of
the mother's directing look, that is in relation to otherness' (13). Yet
this is a form of recognition that guides all subsequent
identifications, including those involving language (the symbolic). Language retains the ambiguities, however --
that we use it to represent ourselves, while recognising it as something
other than ourselves. In this way, the imaginary and the symbolic
presuppose each other. The imaginary, (subjective awareness) is only
possible within a network of symbolic relations in language. Clearly,
this has helped to understand the production of subjectivities by film,
especially by feminists.
'The Recognition of
Lacan all describes sexual difference
by referring to the term 'phallus',
and has immediately been criticised by continuing a phallocratic
tradition where women are seen purely negatively, as lacking something,
as posing a threat to male sexuality. This has led to, say, Irigary's
notion of multiple plural significations, to describe femininity, rather
than just as not male
Lacan does argue that sexual
differences are not natural, but cultural. Thus [social and cultural] 'desire' replaces the notion of [biological] 'need'. The
phallus too, can be seen as purely symbolic, not to be confused with the
penis. The work sets out to challenge the notion of symbolic
differentiation. However, Lacan is not free of biologism according to
Heath [see above], and the danger is that symbolic differences become
validated by genital differences. Indeed, how else could the phallus
gain such power as the best symbol for sexual difference? For Heath, the
unconscious constantly produces differences.
However, Heath in his turn is in danger
of seeing the subject as just an effect of the unconscious structure.
This is the real problem in Lacan, of which biologism is only an
element. For Lacan, the phallus is a signifier, which indicates the two
major kind of symbolic regulation --
'the linguistic structure of the unconscious, and the Oedipal
complex understood as the structuring of subjectivity' (17). Thus the
role of the father who interrupts the mother child dyad is a signifier
[a representative of the law of the symbolic]. However, why
should the subject come to see these two forms of regulation in this
way? The subject must perceive these differences and symbolise them if
they are to have this permanent effect on subjectivity Some connection
between differences at the linguistic level and empirical, perceptible,
differences must be assumed.
Lacan seems elusive on this. He offers
only an argument that the role of the phallus is
'veiled', that is misrecognised as before. This misrecognition
may arise by confusing symbolic and anatomical differences, or it could
be a something quite different -- such as
'the point at which the subject recognises that its own imaginary
investment in the mother as having the phallus must fail' (18). Whatever
the mechanism, there must be some experience of difference for the
subject, somehow connected to important kinds of differences between
signifiers. Remember that the differences between signifiers are logical
differences, beyond the grasp of consciousness. In this way, there can
be no real connection between the imaginary and the symbolic: in order
to grasp the cultural and linguistic significance of genital
differences, the subject must already have some symbolic potentials,
that is it cannot be confined entirely to the imaginary .
The whole motion of differences between
signifiers is confined just to one linguistic model, where it is used to
establish some rules and conventions for establishing meanings.
Difference 'works', only
according to these rules, 'it
ought not to be thought of as given to
(or withheld from) consciousness independently of the circulation and use of
those rules' (18). The whole connection with Freud results merely from a
'play on the word "difference"' (19). [The use of the term 'phallus'
is another play on words?]
Lacan's scheme is ultimately
incoherent, and he suffers from problems similar to those identified in Althusser
by Hirst. There are contradictions in arguing that individuals are
constituted as subjects through hailing and recognition -- such
recognition again implies some capacity which is somehow outside
subjectivity. Interpellation itself involves an empiricist notion of
recognition available to all subjects, but the processes of
interpellation themselves can only be misrecognised. Hence the
'imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence'.
A Summary of Strategies in Lacanian
Everything turns on misrecognition, but
there is a contradiction here too. On the one hand, language retains the
potential to show the world to the mind, and this goes on in the
imaginary in a distorted way. On the other hand, language is a set of
codes which produce particular effects of meaning and recognition,
independently of the subject, who can only realise its effects in
moments of experience. In this second sense, representation is
Lacan continually blurs these two
notions to produce his idea of the subject as misrecognising itself and
therefore experiencing constant division (because the only available
language uses signifiers which are divided). There is an underlying
rationalism, 'which assumes
that the theoretical model it builds comprises an ontological structure
which must find its realisation in history' (20). What is required is to
rethink the very concept of consciousness instead.
The whole notion of consciousness is
associated with 'phenomenological
interventions in linguistics' (21)
[Ricoeur is mentioned]. The idea was to try to use linguistics to
understand subjectivities, conceived as a dialectical relation which
constitutes both language and subjectivity: the
'speaking subject' brings itself into being by realising using
the possibilities in language (21).
Enunciation is the key to this process. For Lacan, there is a similar
interplay, but this time leading to an experience of division and lack,
since when I use language I experience it as not mine. However this
still implies some relationship between linguistic terms and some
'existential relation with consciousness'
(22). Foucault would want to criticise such a view of as an
example of the 'transcendental/empirical couple'. Here,
'subjectivity and knowledge are formed within certain empirical
mechanisms (Life, Labour
and language)' (22). Analysis of such mechanisms therefore offers some
transcendental possibilities to trace out the history of
'Man'. The same kind of procedure enabled analysts to study
linguistics empirically but at the same time to uncover forms of
subjectivity. Lacan also retains this idea.
There are some problems and actually
using Lacanian theory to analyse film and culture:
Lacan can be rescued as long as one
refuses to see it as a global theory. Some kinds of discourse might help
to organise some kinds of recognition, and some concrete historical
notions of subjectivity might be explained well by applying the
techniques. Freudian mechanisms might be rethought, or as discourses in
the Foucaldian sense, with historical contexts. It seems strange that
linguistic differences should be associated with sexual differences,
since these have not always been as stable as they appear -- even Freud
recognises the possibilities of bisexuality, and polymorphously perverse
possibilities. In this sense, polymorphous sexuality might be seen as
the source of unrealised differences, a source of endless deferral of
identity, a source of equally open and flexible kinds of representation
Greig, D 'The Sexual Differentiation of the Hitchcock Text', pp 28 -- 47
This is a long and detailed reading of some Hitchcock films which it is almost impossible to summarise effectively, and which deserves to be read in its own right, of course. We can extract a few points of more general interest, however.
Much textual analysis in the 1970s suggested that sexual difference was central to classical Hollywood cinema. The work of Raymond Bellour was particularly important here. Sexual difference motivated narrative by posing a problem of difference, and was resolved in the end, usually by a return to the heterosexual couple. Women offered the key term here, while the desire of the man 'constituted the enunciation of the film' (28) [nb 'enunciation' here refers to the process of actually speaking or offering a message, but it is notoriously difficult to define -- Bellour himself has been translated thus: 'the term [enunciator]... marks both the person who possesses the right to speak within the film, and the source (instance) towards which the series of representations is logically channeled back'-- Stacey, below. Thus is is possible to see Hitchcock himself as the enunciator]. The spectator took over the position of the enunciator 'desired by the text in order to desire like the text'. The critic became a parallel enunciator.
However, there has been criticism of this view, especially turning on the alleged political value of these constructions. Textual analysis can only demonstrate that tendency of the text, its strategies, but many readings are possible, as Barthes in particular demonstrates. Feminist work on fantasy has lent support to this view, demonstrating the possibility of interchangeable roles, and the taking up of alternative subject positions -- the possibility of multiple identities.
Hitchcock films are particularly suitable as a test for these rival approaches. In particular, Bellour needs to be re-read -- his methodology 'may be and has been appropriated, for a dangerous popularisation of pre-set truisms of the nature of sexual difference and the concomitant assertion of a masochistic attitude of the female spectator' (29). This reduces the Hitchcock text, as a production in Barthes' sense, especially weakening the transgressive elements.
A detailed comparison of Bellour's and Greig's own readings ensue.[ I was struck by the similarities between Bellour and Mulvey in this account -- both see women as symbolising difference, both point to similar mechanisms of containment, for example to wound or kill the transgressive woman, or to contain her at the end, both illustrate their arguments by referring to 'looks']. Hitchcock's well-known personal appearances in his films are read as 'an index of the particular relationship between Hitchcock's films and the larger corpus of Hollywood cinema' (page 32). Bellour's readings are also based on Barthes' 'new semiology', focusing the activity of signification, and refusing to acknowledge the author as the source of any privileged meaning, generally decentring any fixed meanings, and celebrating the ambiguity of signification. Enunciation becomes the important signifying activity -- 'a dynamic of the text, to cite the production of meaning,... the point around which all activity coheres' (33). This point is often an actual character, or it may be 'the figure of Hitchcock... author and myth' , or his 'fictional delegates '(33) [a kind of structuralist auteur, then?]. The enunciatory drive is a masculine desire, and its aim is often to possess women, or to follow 'the male Oedipal trajectory'.
However, why should there be just one possible enunciation? Why not a 'biological text, a text of irony where to potential enunciations continually confront each other'? Hitchcock films can be read this way too -- see page 34 for Doane's reading, which stresses the 'hesitancy of the patriarchal hand ' in Marnie. Bellour wants to fix the meaning of the text as soon as he discovers a consistency, driven, no doubt by his politics.
Bellour relies upon Lacan and others in his understanding of the symbolic as constraining system. He relies upon it to describe the emergence of stable masculine identities, relying upon the Oedipal myth. This in turn is identified as central to many Hitchcock films, such as North by Northwest. Such is male dominance, that even the difference represented by women is really only an effect of a male recognition of the split self in the 'mirror phase'. [of Lacanian theory, the recognition that the symbolic is both a vehicle for expression and something other]. 'Hollywood asserts: "Look at the woman -- she's different" in order to promote "Look at yourself -- you're the same (as us)"' (page 36). [A clear difference with Mulvey here, then]. The whole point of the symbolic is to construct a stable male identity .
For Bellour, the Oedipal scenes, and the processes of recognition are endlessly repeated, until they take on the function of a myth. But this constrains alternative readings of texts, as well as cementing the link between Hitchcock films in particular, and Hollywood in general [and the wider system of patriarchy beyond that?]. As with structuralism in general, there still must be an active subject who realises ( 'structurates') the symbolic, however. The text must also be capable of transgression, and can never simply reproduce the symbolic, even though that may be its tendency or 'symbolic pressure'. Yet there seems to be no other way of reading the text [the active subject is, of course, ruled out in advance].
What of alternatives? What about the work on female Oedipal trajectories? Can these also be detected in films? Must such trajectories always end in the reassertion of male control? There must be different point of identification for spectators. Even Hitchcock films can feature a central female figure, and these might be particularly suitable. We might even go beyond this alternation of male and female perspectives, though , via the work on fantasy.
In conventional textual analysis like the ones discussed, the female spectator is marginalised, and her pleasures reduced to masochistic ones. Any independence and autonomy is seen as only relative, and easily recuperated. But fantasy offers more possibilities, and new complexity, or 'possible narratives... all of which display potential and pleasurable subject positions for the fantasist within and outside the text' (40). Freud's work on perversions might be drawn upon here, especially the common fantasy involving the beating of children. It is clear that fantasists can take up different positions in this fantasy, sadistic or masochistic, for example. The pleasure of fantasy is not derived definitively from the text, but from its possible enunciations.
Greig thinks there might be some connection here with the classic realist text, as in McCabe's classic analysis -- in both cases, the source of the organising narrative is denied, and the spectator is offered a passive role. Its very impersonality permits different ways to enter the text, as in Barthes' ' readerly text' (page 42). Both Freud and Barthes stress 'atemporality, substitution, reversibility' in their different accounts, and thus 'both assert the autonomy of the spectator from textual effects' (42). It is likely, then that texts have more than one dynamic or enunciation. The Oedipus complex itself, used to fix the meaning of texts for Bellour, may not be so important -- indeed, Barthes himself suggests that anxiety about castration, which continues and persists, is far more significant [apparently, Bellour and Barthes were discussing Sarrasine at the time] Greig says this indicates Barthes' commitment to 'the continuation of textual reading as a practice opposed to the halting on a final signified'.
There are primal fantasies, as well as primal scenes, and these act to continually realises, or 'structurate' the symbolic. Freudian primal scenes have been identified in Hitchcock films -- in Rear Window, for example and in many others. Psycho is perhaps the best example, with many sequences offering 'a kind of obscene condensation of the primal scene' (45) -- for example, 'Arbogast [the unfortunate private detectives stabbed by Norman Bates dressed as his mother] absailing backwards down the bannister, arms flailing, in a grotesque parody of orgasm' (45).
However, the 'split personalities' of characters like Bates can be read as offering the possibility of different identifications -- but Bellour fails to do this, resorting to 'the very stereotypes which support patriarchy in its cultural superiority' (46). More promising his conception of the subject as 'found in a sort of infinite play of fantasy, at rest in a dynamic structuration... [and of ]... the film text... as continuous interaction of fantasies and denunciations -- and any resultant structure is dependent upon the individual position taken up in relation to that text' (46).
Stacey, J 'Desperately Seeking Difference', pp 48 -- 61
Feminist critics like Mulvey have ignored the pleasure of the woman spectator, especially 'the specifically homosexual pleasures of female spectatorship' (48). There are other absences too -- the male figure as erotic object -- but it has been the notion that the feminine is only an object for male pleasures that has been the main problem. This might be overcome by using forms of textual analysis to identify different spectator positions, or relying upon spectators' subjectivities to provide them with active capacities.
Bellour is reviewed first, and he leaves no room for subjectivities, and thus is 'even more totalistic and deterministic than Mulvey' (Stacey, quoting Bergstrom, page 50). Doane offers another alternative, suggesting that females can also derive narcissistic pleasures by direct identification with women on screen. This is in contrast with male pleasures in voyeurism, itself derived from infant sexuality and the ways in which girls and boys acquire knowledge of difference (51). However, this does not help in the project to explain the role of film in patriarchy, and runs the risk of a vision of feminine specificity which might easily be recuperated by patriarchy [as some kind of biological essentialism].
There is another problem too --'how can we express the extent of women's oppression without denying femininity any room to manoeuvre (Mulvey, 1975), defining women as complete victims of patriarchy (Bellour, 1979), or as totally other to it (Doane 1982)?' (51).
Mulvey (1981) offers the option of celebrating and multiplying differences, and turns in particular to Freud's and the ways in which women have to develop heterosexual femininity through a process of oscillation between masculine and feminine. The character Pearl Chavez does this in Mulvey's example -- see file -- and so can the female spectator, although this is limited and incomplete. Nevertheless, this is a way out of 'linked binary oppositions' (52), which are also described by Kristeva as characterising female homosexuality (as in Kristeva's "I am looking, as a man would, for a woman", or her "I submit myself, as if I were a man who thought he was a woman, to a woman who thinks she is a man" -- Stacey, quoting Doane, citing Kristeva on Stacey's page 52).
In films where women appear as sexual objects, women can identify with a masculine heterosexual desire, or refuse to do so, or take any position in between. What they actually do requires research. Stacey's own reading of two films -- All About Eve, and Desperately Seeking Susan -- shows some possibilities [and some detailed readings follow -- briefly, both feature a female character who strongly identifies with and wants to be like another strong female character].
We might describe these films as demonstrating a female version of the male Oedipal trajectory. Freud had two positions on this, his first one simply reversing the terms, so that female infants had to overcome an illicit love for their fathers. The later one suggests that the mother is a love object for girls as well, providing difficulties in developing a heterosexual identity, but grounding a residual female homosexuality as a source of future pleasure for the female spectator.
What produces narrative desire in Desperately... is the difference between two women, one of whom has kicked over the traces --'Roberta is represented as young, inexperienced and asexual, while Susan's behaviour and appearance are coded as sexually confident and provocative' (60). Roberta finally finds Susan and thus becomes more like her ideal, but this is only a 'temporary narrative fulfilment' (61), since differences between women persist. Nevertheless the pleasures in watching this film for women are likely to be more than just either conventional desire [scopophilia] or identification [narcissism].