(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.

The Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic, or, The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In June 2017, queer artist and activist Andy Simmons completed the first of twelve color illustrations exploring the imagistic history of the Hanky Code, a sartorially driven, discreet coding system used by queer men to express sexual desire.

In the decade bookended by the Stonewall riots and the advent of HIV/AIDS, urban queer male culture experienced rhizomatic transformation. The heady rush of political praxis immediately following 1969 left its intoxicating watermark on the economies of pleasure and desire queer men nourished from San Francisco to New York City.

It would be misleading, of course, to suggest that the first legible crystallization of urban queer male culture materialized in the 1970s. The vibrant cultural ecologies of the post-Stonewall moment were shaped by the multiplicity of queer male social and sexual histories, the coalescence of which sometimes resulted in the adoption of nuanced methods of sexual communication—like the hanky code, known also as the handkerchief code, the banana code, or flagging.

On the Hanky Code as Queer Male Semiotic

The 1970s hanky code, as described by American sociologist and historian Cindy Patton, generated meaning through the “semiotic use of bandanas of different colors,” the selection of which expressed interest particular modes of sexual practice. In terms of practice, an individual would place a handkerchief in one of his back pockets; when read alongside the handkerchief’s colors and patterning, the placement of the handkerchief in either the right or left pocket revealed the wearer’s sexual interests. The conceptual yoking of the handkerchief to sexual expression transformed the sartorial medium into a sexual text—exclamatory to those already versed in its coding schema, inconspicuous to those unaware of its signifying labor.

Despite the hanky code’s novelty and likely importance within spaces inimical to queer sexual expression, its emphasized substitution of articulated sexual particularity for more universal and universalizing signifiers necessarily flattens the nuanced economies of desire out of which the code arose. This hollowing of sexual difference, inadvertently effected by the creation of a system meant to augment sexual possibility, underscores the shifting potentials immanent to a critical concept of the medium.

One might consider, for example, the notional incongruities within Hal Fischer’s analysis of the hanky code as a paradigm of gay semiotics. In the following statement, Fischer highlights the imaginative variability of queer male desire and the correlative complexity of any signifying system operating to capture the nuances of that desire:

The gay semiotic is far more sophisticated than straight sign language, because in gay culture, roles are not as clearly defined. . . . Gays have many more sexual possibilities than straight people and therefore need a more intricate communication system.

Having established the relative depth of the queer male sexual imaginary, Fischer then proffers his descriptive account of the handkerchief qua gay semiotic, which, rather discordantly, unfolds in a language of monolithic absolutism and an almost transcendent stasis:

In the gay semiotic the body is divided into sides, the left representing the aggressive, the right the passive. Any sign placed on the left side indicates that the wearer will always take an active role during sexual activity. Conversely, a sign on the right side of the body indicates passive behavior.

Of interest here, in addition to Fischer’s situating queer sexual possibility as both a repository of difference and a chamber of sameness, is the reversal of the binaristic associations between passive/aggressive and left/right. Although Fischer’s subsequent capitulation that handkerchiefs may ultimately be “ambivalent signifiers because many individuals prefer to pick their roles after they pick their partners” only results in further equivocation, I would like to contend that the slippage visible within Fischer’s analysis illuminates an important aspect of the handkerchief as a medium and the hanky code as a mediated system of sexual communication.

The Immanent Contradiction of the Medium qua Signifier

My purpose in mentioning the specifics of Fisher’s analysis is not to critically glorify the presence of inconsistencies but rather to marshal those inconsistencies as evidence of the signifying medium’s inevitable potential for contradiction, confusion, and communicative failure.

In the version of the hanky code considered authoritative (likely because it is an aggressively distilled taxonomy and thus one more easily employed), the color-categories available for selection simultaneously seem to include so much as to bleed into one another and to remain so disparate as to confound any suggestion that the “hanky code” was used by any homogenized sexual culture (i.e., queer men). Because the handkerchief communicates not only an interest in certain sexual practices but also the “role” one prefers in the realization of those sexual practices, it is difficult to determine whether it was realistically possible to adhere to the code’s demarcations.

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I would provisionally suggest that the emancipatory potential of the hanky code—its covert communication of vilified sexual desire—is limited by and also serves as a limit point of the capacity of any medium qua signifier to flatten difference. Placing a handkerchief in one’s back pocket as an urban queer male living in the 1970s revealed to potential partners the possibility of sexual pleasure in myriad forms; however, in its display and dissemination of this information, the handkerchief ossified queer male libidinal economies by sedimenting reductive binaries onto queer male sexualities. Insofar as the “information” expressed by the handkerchief dealt in heteronormative sexual scripts, the hanky code mobilized a medium that broadened the discursive reach of male queerness without unmooring the heterosexualization to which non-normative sexualities are relentlessly exposed.