(En)Visioning an Ethico-Politics of Loving/Looking: Kaja Silverman and the Field of the Visual

Jacques Lacan, the Mirror Stage, and Inauguration of the I

At the Sixteenth International Congress of Psychoanalysis held in Zurich in June 1949, Jacques Lacan delivered a lecture entitled “The Mirror State as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Lacan’s intervention, underscored by the lecture’s title, emphasizes the primary role of the mirror stage in the formation of the subject’s ego. Lacan characterizes the mirror stage as the moment of an infant’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image,” the imago whose fictive unity “is given to him only as a gestalt, that is, in an exteriority in which . . . this form is more constitutive than constituted” (76). The seductive unification conferred by the infant’s assumption of his specular image becomes, per Lacan, the very “threshold of the visible world” (77).

It is the provocative suggestion that the subject cannot access its enveloping world without the sense of self grounded in the imago that propels Kaja Silverman’s The Threshold of the Visible World. Silverman, currently the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, has had a profound influence on critical-theoretical discourse in media studies, cinema studies, and semiology, with an academic career spanning more than three decades and including more than nine published monographs, as well as dozens of shorter publications and presentations.

Kaja Silverman and The Threshold of the Visible World

Known for her exceptionally nuanced and unprecedented readings of canonical texts within the fields of psychoanalysis, the structuralisms, and feminist media theory, Silverman theorizes at an interdisciplinary juncture that remains profoundly inflected by her commitment to a liberatory, affirmative politics. I will take as my focus in this post the interventions Silverman proposes in her Threshold of the Visible World, the character of which she  articulates as twofold: first, “to make possible our identification at a distance with bodies which we would otherwise phobically avoid [in order] to facilitate our leap out of ‘difference’ and into bodily otherness,” and, second, to recognize the critical possibilities afforded by those “visual texts which activate in us the capacity to idealize bodies which diverge as widely as possible from both ourselves and from the cultural norm” (37).

410703fFQbL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Threshold of the Visible World derives its organizational impetus from Lacan’s suggestion, distilled by Silverman, that “it is only by moving through the mirror stage that one enters the scopic domain” (3); accordingly, the two halves of Silverman’s text track the conceptual bifurcation Lacan draws between the conclusion of the mirror stage and the subject’s inauguration into the field of vision. In the first half of the text, Silverman attends to the social and psychic constraints that foreclose alternative sites of bodily identifications and, by implication, psychic idealizations, as well as to the conditions under which the subject might resist those constraints. In the latter half, Silverman turns to the social and psychic forces that discipline the subject’s capacity to look and queries whether such forces can be counter-mobilized to found new modes of looking.

The weaving together of these theoretical strands encourages Silverman to pursue the conceptual possibility of the “good enough”—a site beyond the vicious cycle of failed idealization and self-revulsion, one marked by the radical possibility of self-love. Situating the visual at the center of her ethico-political project, Silverman contends that the lessons of Threshold may be those “we can perhaps only learn from visual texts, since they have the power to reeducate the look” (5). I think it necessary to note at the outset that Silverman’s preoccupation with vision, which mirrors media studies’ historical investment in the sensuously visual, is a limiting consequence of her engagement with specific elements of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Rather than critique what some may perceive as an omission inimical to the text’s aspirations, I would like to ask how Silverman’s analysis could be extended beyond what Lacanian psychoanalysis might (circumscriptively) imagine.

The Psychoanalytic Apparatus of Threshold of the Visible

The first half of Silverman’s text, “The Threshold,” critically engages with the Lacan’s theorization of identification and idealization and their consequences for ego constitution. “The Visible World,” the text’s latter half, works through the interrelated notions of the gaze, the look, and the screen. This organizational logic, with its preference for express demarcation between and among specific elements of psychoanalytic theory, helpfully grounds and directs the text’s dense theoretical landscape. However, as with most systems of differentiation, this one proves artificial; Silverman braids together the disparate sites of psychoanalytic inquiry undergirding her project even as she individually augments their heuristic clarity.

In the interest of highlighting Silverman’s style of engagement with mediatic texts, I will turn the attention of my post to the the second chapter of Threshold, “From the Ideal-Ego to the Active Gift of Love.” This chapter buttresses its “theoretical elaboration and textual dramatization of the perils involved in self-idealization . . . [and its] attempt to specify the conditions under which idealization might work to position the subject actively within the field of vision” with an extended discussion of the (West) German film Bildnis Einer Trinkerin (1979), or Ticket of No Return. Silverman’s meditation on the film, which extends both Lacanian and feminist theorizations of the visual, secures her conclusion that if it is through textual or visual production “that the subject is encouraged to idealize certain bodily parameters, it can only be through the creation and circulation of alternative images and words that he or she can be given access to new identificatory coordinates” (81).

Identification, Idealization, and the Fantasy of the Body in Bits and Pieces

Central to psychic subjectification and to the formation of the bodily ego are the processes of idealization and identification. Identification is the process through which an object in the external world becomes incorporated into that subject’s psychic constitution. Although the subject may privilege diverse objects of identification, the “determinative influence over the ego’s subsequent development” remains bound to the identification of the infant with her specular image at the mirror stage’s conclusion (11). Importantly, as Silverman notes, Identification can be realized in the absence of idealization; idealization, however, cannot proceed without the concomitant work of identification. How, then, are we to understand idealization?

Idealization is the process of libidinal investment in an object’s value such that it is elevated “to the level of das Ding, or the impossible nonobject of desire” (40). It is through the idealization of an object as das Ding that the effects of primal repression—also known as the entry into language—are consolidated. As a result of this idealizing elevation, the Lacanian psychoanalytic subject constituted by lack materializes: “By putting objects in the place of the unattainable nonobject of desire, one also maintains one’s distance from that nonobject, thereby becoming, in the strongest sense of the word, the subject of lack” (40). It is through idealization that the subject is able to posit “an object as capable of filling the void at the heart of his or her psyche, which puts him or her in a definitionally identificatory relation to it” (70), and it is through the imbrication of idealization and identification that the subject may approach a condition of love, the “forming [of] an imaginary alignment with bodily coordinates which cannot be assimilated to one’s own” (71).

This condition of love is only one of the two forms that identification can take in relation to the idealized object, however. In the other, the subject seeks to abolish the image because it threatens the subject’s approximation of the ideal it reflects, the consequences of which are imperiling. Under what conditions, though, could such delusory idealization through identification endanger the subject, particularly if the act of idealized identification at the mirror stage’s end is deemed a necessary, albeit violent, entry into the social order? It is here that Silverman provides one of her major rereadings of Lacan.

Silverman demands that Lacan’s elaboration of the mirror stage and its consequent impact on ego formation be reformulated in service of a more emphatically political analysis than Lacan otherwise provides. If it is indeed true that “the subject who aspires to incarnate or embody the ideal most typically his or her definition of that ideal from normative representation,” then the content of such normative ideality—produced over time in the form of dominant social fictions—will reflect “all of those many varieties of ‘difference’ through which social identity is inscribed” and of which a select few will be valorized (40, 19). “It now seems crucial to add that since everything idealizing attribution—e.g., ‘whiteness,’ masculinity,’ ‘heterosexuality’—at present implies its opposite,” Silverman continues, “and since the imposition of all of these forms of difference depends upon the imaginary alignment of certain subjects with what is negative rather than ideal, the images through which the subject is culturally apprehended do not always facilitate the production of a lovable bodily ego” (19).

The refusal to idealize and identify outside of one’s sexually, racially, or economically privileged bodily coordinates thwarts the possibility of alternative imaginary alignments open to and accepting of difference. One can only imagine identification with such “other” coordinates under circumstances when the body is no longer whole or unified, the privileging of which Silverman links to the violence of differentiation.

Bildnis einer Trinkerin and the Dangers of Self-Idealization

Silverman’s robust psychoanalytic enterprise in the second chapter of Threshold culminates in a persuasive reading of Ulrike Ottinger’s Bildnis einer Trinerin. This reading moves not only beyond the limits of Lacanian psychoanalysis; it also turns to the presumptions Silverman believes to undergird feminist film theory, the primary of which is the “collapse between woman and the image” (45). The film’s protagonist, Silverman notes, is pathologically obsessed with own mirror reflection. That reflection engrosses all of her desire, and, as the film progresses through its myriad fantasy sequences detailing the protagonist’s imagined inhabitation of other bodies and spaces, the ultimate failure of the protagonist to align with the mirrored ideal may suggest the location of resistance within “a politically enabling masquerade of femininity” (46).

Silverman seeks to displace this presumed reading, instead arguing that the protagonist’s pathological relation to her own reflection acknowledges “her inability to accept her exteriority to the idealizing image,” a condition that demands the location of the female subject not outside of lack, as psychoanalysis would often cast her, but within its discursivity (46). Close readings of scenes throughout the film, organized both in the order presented by the director and in an order Silverman proposes to better unearth its psychoanalytic implications, lend persuasive force to her claim that the subject, no matter its putative bearing of the lack, “always look from a position within the field of vision,” meaning that he or she is both subordinated by the gaze and subordinates others through the gaze (60).

If the subject is always already positioned as both the object of the gaze and the subject who looks, then the radical possibility of resistance for those persons presumed only to serve as objects within a hetero-masculinist psychoanalytic order can be realized. Silverman characterizes this possibility as “the gift of love,” an act that implies “both idealizing beyond the parameters of the ‘self,’ and doing so with a full understanding of one’s own creative participation with respect to the end result”—ultimately, then, an act that “strives to keep the cherished ‘image’ outside,” never annihilated through sublation by the self (78, 76).

On Looking with Love

As I mentioned earlier, Silverman remarks that the suggestions for an ethico-political praxis of looking contained within Threshold may be those “we can perhaps only learn from visual texts, since they have the power to reeducate the look” (5). Her conceptually elegant foray with Lacanian psychoanalysis maintain’s Lacan’s emphasis on the visual, which undergirds Silverman’s elaboration of the gift of love, itself a form of looking without taking. I would like to conclude by asking how we might extend this reading elsewhere, beyond the parameters of the visual and toward the exploding horizons of new media.

The cellphone application Grindr functions as an interface through which its users, primarily queer men, are able to facilitate interpersonal sexual and romantic encounters. Grindr is thoroughly saturated by the visual, but, as with all haptic interfaces, it also requires touch in order to fully navigate the application. The capacity to touch the cellphone screen and adjudicate another user’s sexual worth is paramount to the petty sovereignty Grindr offers. If a new ethico-politics of looking might be achieved by seeking to idealize the other without needing to fully approximate and thus absorb the other, how might such an imperative be translated into the sensuous act of touch?

The touch is certainly political, and it can be, as Grindr regularly demonstrates, undeniably violent. However, if Grindr users are able to recognize that the “others” whom they encounter are also operating within the multiple sovereignties of arbitrary touch, are also subject to the annihilating whims of sublating idealization or annihilating revulsion, it may be possible to recognize that the act of not touching—in the instance of Grindr, of not blocking a user on the basis of participation in violent economies of sexual aesthetics—may open entirely new possibilities for desire. Perhaps more importantly, the choice not to block via touch might help users recognize the very fragile, vulnerable nature of publicly desiring, particularly when desire and lack are, as Silverman demonstrates, so intimately bound.

Grindr does not do away with the visual, but it may contain the promise of an ethico-politics of the kinesthetic—one with which Silverman would very likely be in accord.


Kindly note that citations contained within the first paragraph reference Lacan’s essay, “The Mirror State as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” All subsequent citations are to Silverman’s The Threshold of the Visible World.

Reference List

  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink, 75-81. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
  • Silverman, Kaja. The Threshold of the Visible World. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

2 thoughts on “(En)Visioning an Ethico-Politics of Loving/Looking: Kaja Silverman and the Field of the Visual

  1. Because Silverman engages with the key juncture that is so important to Mulvey between engaging with mirrored imaginaries and induction into the scopic logics of the spectator, this is a great text to choose as a way to extend our discussion of visual culture. Indeed, many media critics are coming back to Silverman’s work on the screen to think about what it might mean not to privilege the surfaces of the visual field or even question the primacy of the ocular altogether (perhaps — as you do — by considering haptic experiences of media). You do a good job articulating the differences (and conditional relations between) identification and idealization in Silverman’s text and then apply it effectively to your own object of study (the Grindr interface). Perhaps it also might be helpful to say more about how Silverman defines the political (sovereignty, contracts, etc.) to think through what political commitments might mean for a theory of media.

  2. Reading your summary of Kajan Silverman’s The Threshold of the Visible World was insightful on several levels. It struck me that Lacan’s theory, built upon by Silverman, suggests an if/then statement. If one moves through the mirror, then they move to the scopic level of deriving pleasure from looking. In other words, a child “cannot access its enveloping world” without experiencing the imago first.
    It was heartening to read that there might be an alternate reaction to the image in the mirror besides revulsion or a sense of loss: the possibility of self-love. I found the discussion of how to re-focus and retrain the gaze interesting. At the same time, you delicately cautioned that there might be an over reliance on visual texts to refashion how people do their looking.
    Based on your description, I was intrigued by Silverman’s feminist theory that the distance between the image and the watcher of a film are not necessarily collapsed because of a sense of lack. Instead, the viewer may creatively participate and cherish the image rather than try to negate it.
    Your summary got me thinking, what happens if a society has no mirrors? Or if children remain unaware of their reflection? Is an ego formed or do they forever remain tribal, and what does that mean? (I’m thinking about the Aborigine). In addition, I wondered what Silverman meant by “cherished” (Is it “looking without taking”?)
    The Grindr example added concreteness to the discussion. I wondered if idealizing others is similar to the anima/animus in psychology (unconscious) or is something else—a trait we would like to consciously develop in ourselves.
    Thank you for an interesting discussion.

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