A Pound of Flesh
Charles Shepherdson

Lacan’s Reading of The Visible and the Invisible

Author’s Bio

This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of the subject as discontinuity in the real.
-Lacan, “Subversion of the Subject…”

This moment of cut is haunted by the form of a bloody scrap—the pound of flesh that life pays in order to turn it into the signifier of signifiers, which it is impossible to restore, as such, to the imaginary body.
-Lacan, “Direction of the Treatment…”

A philosophy of the flesh is the condition without which psychoanalysis remains anthropology.
-Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible

1. The Limit of Language

When The Visible and the Invisible was published in 1964, Lacan was teaching for the first time at the École normale supérieure. In the fall of 1963, the previous semester, the French Society for Psychoanalysis had excluded Lacan from its list of approved training analysts, which also meant his rejection from the society founded by Freud himself, the International Psychoanalytic Association. As a result, Lacan cancelled his seminar at Sainte-Anne Hospital, where it had been running for ten years, and began teaching for the first time before a university audience (at the invitation of Femand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and other supporters who had arranged for him to continue his teaching). Philosophers like Jean Wahl and Jean Hyppolite had of course taken an interest in his work for many years, but this was the first time that participants in his seminar no longer needed the special credentials required to enter the psychiatric clinic at the teaching hospital. The seminar was now open to the public, was considerably larger than it had ever been, and its participants came mainly from the university. Lacan was now obliged to make a case for his work before the academic world.

The seminar he had planned for that year was called Les noms-du- père (The Names-of-the-Father), but only one session took place. When he moved from Sainte-Anne to the École normale, he offered a different course, which was published as Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, although it was originally entitled Les fondements de la psychanalyse (The Foundations of Psychoanalysis). It is clear, therefore, that this seminar constitutes a new beginning of sorts, a return to fundamental principles. It also involves a concerted effort, on Lacan’s pan, to prove himself. If we begin with these historical details, it is not because of their intrinsic importance, or because a theoretical text can be reduced to its historical milieu, but because Lacan’s remarks on The Visible and the Invisible can be grasped only if we recognize the specific concerns that occupied him during this course.

Before we turn to that course, however, let us sketch its horizon more precisely. The ill-fated session from the Names-of-the-Father seminar, which has been published in the English (but not the French) edition of Television, contains an analysis of the “voice” which is very close to the account of the “gaze” that organizes his discussion of Merleau-Ponty (see Salecl and Zizek), The session on the “voice” develops through a reading of the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac (see Derrida), which is in turn elaborated by reference to Caravaggio’s depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—the entire session providing a brief summary of Lacan’s course on anxiety from the previous semester (the unpublished Seminar X: L’ angoisse, 1962-63), in which Heidegger is never far away. The context for his treatment of Merleau-Ponty is therefore extremely complex and overdetermined, opening in many directions, but at the same time it is extremely precise, in the sense that Lacan’s purpose in exploring these materials is not primarily philosophical, but concerns the development of a fairly narrow and technical point within psychoanalytic theory, namely, the problem of the drive.

We thus have an initial orientation: as objects of the drive, the “voice” and the “gaze” are not properties of the subject (the power to look or to speak), and as a result, there is a considerable difference between “the gaze” as it functions in some film theory, and the gaze as an object of the scopic drive (see Saper). Lacan’s discussion in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis of Sartre’s account of the gaze (in which the voyeuristic subject is suddenly surprised by the look of the other) is intended to draw a sharp distinction between the Sartrean framework, which may do justice to the peculiar way in which the relation between two subjects can vacillate between “objectification” and “intersubjectivity,” and the Freudian account of the drive and its object. This suggests that if Lacan turns from Sartre to Merleau-Ponty, it is because Merleau-Ponty has moved beyond the intersubjective formulation toward a constitutive “invisibility” at the heart of the visible. But this only makes more acute the question of why Lacan in turn disagrees with Merleau-Ponty.

Let us recall the four fundamental concepts that Lacan treats in Seminar XI: the unconscious, repetition, transference, and the drive (SXI 16/12). The editorial divisions have broken the seminar into four sections and a short conclusion. The first section is called “The Unconscious and Repetition,” and the third section is called “The Transference and the Drive.” These two sections would therefore seem to cover the four main topics of the seminar. Two other sections remain. The second contains Lacan’s remarks on Merleau-Ponty (which occupy four chapters). The comments on Merleau-Ponty thus interrupt the seminar, suspending it at the very center, separating the first pair of “fundamental concepts” from the second pair. Lacan’s discussion of The Visible and the Invisible could thus be said to provide a sort of hinge, or a point of suspension, particularly between the treatment of the “unconscious” and the treatment of the “drive.”

As for the fourth section, I will not develop it here, although it has a crucial bearing on his treatment of Merleau-Ponty and can be said to contain Lacan’s most important theoretical contribution in this seminar, his main step forward in relation to his earlier work. Let us say only this: that it presents us with a consolidation of a development in Lacan’s work over the preceding two or three years, which concerns his refusal to account for the unconscious as an exclusively “symbolic” phenomenon. It is the notorious “symbolic” conception of the subject that Lacan now wishes to complicate or modify, by stressing the category of the real in an unprecedented way. And it is this emphasis upon the real that will lead him to develop his account of the objet petit a, the object of the drive. “In advancing this proposition,” Lacan says,

I find myself in a problematic position—for what have I taught about the unconscious? The unconscious is constituted by the effects of speech…the unconscious is structured like a language…And yet this leaching has had, in its approach, an end that I have called transferential. (SXI 137/149)

This transferential dimension introduces a problem because Lacan has insisted in this seminar upon a new definition of the transference, namely: “the transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious” (SXI 137/149, emphasis added). We may tend to think of the transference in purely “symbolic” terms, as a process of speech that allows the unconscious to appear through the signifier, in the classical form of the dream, in the lapsus or parapraxis, or in any of those verbal formations that present the subject’s “unconscious thought,” revealing in symbolic form what the ego does not wish to say. But with this definition of the transference as an enactment of the reality of the unconscious, we are forced to conclude that the unconscious is not reducible to a purely “symbolic” phenomenon. This is in keeping with Freud’s own claims, and Lacan immediately points this out, adding: “The reality of the unconscious is sexual reality” (SXI 138/150). Whatever he means by “sexual reality,” and however complex may be the relation between “reality” and the “real.” it is clear that the unconscious is no longer understood in purely “symbolic” terms (see Shepherdson, “Vital Signs”). As we shall see, this new development has a decisive bearing on his treatment of Merleau-Ponty, and on the concept of the “gaze.”

The same difficulty is present at the very beginning of the seminar, in a chapter entitled “The Freudian Unconscious and Ours.” “Most of you will have some idea of what I mean when I say—the unconscious is structured like a language,” he writes (SXI 23/20). “It is this linguistic structure… that assures us that there is, beneath the term unconscious, something definable, accessible and objectifiable. But when I urge psychoanalysts not to ignore this field,” he asks, “does this mean that I hope to include the concepts historically introduced by Freud” within this linguistic structure? Can we maintain that the unconscious (or “sexual reality”) is reducible to a symbolic phenomenon? “No, I don’t think so. The unconscious, the Freudian concept, is something different, which I would like to try to get you to grasp today” (SXI 24/21). We will not develop this turn in Lacan’s thinking any further here. It is enough to recognize that the “gaze” introduces a dimension that is located at the very limit of the symbolic order, in the sense that the gaze marks the “limits of formalization,” the point at which the symbolic structure is incomplete. As such, the gaze belongs to the category of the real, which is neither symbolic nor imaginary, but is rather linked to the concept of lack, a concept which begins to play a new and decisive role in Lacan’s thought and presents us with a radical development in his conception of the subject. We can summarize this development through the epigraph chosen from his essay “The Subversion of the Subject…,” which speaks of a certain disruption in the linguistic field, a rupture in the signifying chain: “This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of die subject as discontinuity in the real” (Écrits, French 801/English 299, emphasis added).

Keeping in mind the basic orientation of his work in this seminar, let us now turn to a discussion of the second section, which deals directly with Merleau-Ponty, focusing in particular on the first two chapters of the four which treat The Visible and the Invisible. The question we will ask is how this conception of the subject as “discontinuity in the real” is linked by Lacan to the question of the body, and in particular to the problem of the drive.

2. The “Gaze” As Object

On February 19,1964. Lacan walked into his seminar and announced: “It is not by mere chance…if this very week I have received a copy of the newly published, posthumous work of my friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty” (SXI 68/71). It is not a matter of chance because this text addresses a problem which Lacan himself was trying to resolve, even if the two thinkers formulate this problem in very different ways. Lacan immediately dedicated the entire session of his seminar, and the following three weeks, to The Visible and the Invisible, posing questions which, even if they do not constitute a rigorous philosophical analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s work, nevertheless constantly bring him back to this remarkable text.

His comments are not easy to understand. The Visible and the Invisible is a notoriously obscure and difficult text, but this is not the only problem. Lacan’s references to philosophical works are never very well developed, and his treatment of Merleau-Ponty is no exception. When he speaks of Hegel or Aristotle, it is always in the course of an attempt to clarify some detail of Freudian theory, and not for strictly philosophical reasons. In addition, his references are usually combined with allusions to several other texts, so that one can never be sure how much he really knows about the material in question, or how precise his analysis is intended to be. And even when he speaks of particular details, of Aristotle’s concept of chance (tuche), for example, or the moral law in Kant’s ethical theory, one cannot know which version of the philosopher he has in mind, which school of thought or interpretive framework he is presupposing. He does not elaborate the philosophical text enough to show us exactly what he takes the author to be saying, and this makes it difficult to see what he is criticizing when he objects, and what he approves of when he agrees. It must therefore be acknowledged at the outset that we cannot find anything like a properly philosophical account of Merleau-Ponty, or a responsible exegesis, in the four chapters that touch on The Visible and the Invisible. Nor can it be said that he does justice to this work, or that he takes us very far into its intricately woven fabric.

The Visible and the Invisible, acknowledging its importance, yet marking what he takes to be its limitations. It should therefore be possible to isolate a few propositions and to grasp the essential features of Lacan’s encounter with this work. If he is concerned, as always, with Freudian theory more than he is with the philosophical tradition, it should be possible to grasp what it is in psychoanalysis that leads him to make the specific claims about Merleau-Ponty that we find in Seminar XI.

One might expect Lacan to take up Merleau-Ponty’s work in terms of the category of the imaginary and its role in the formation of the body—exploring the concept of the Gestalt and the question of the visual field as an imaginary formation that goes beyond classical theories of perception, sensation, or visual experience. But this is not what interests Lacan in 1964. One might expect him to stress the symbolic order, either celebrating Merleau-Ponty’s turn toward Saussure or criticizing him for elaborating the question of language without giving sufficient attention to the unconscious. But this is not what we find in his analysis of The Visible and the Invisible. One might expect, finally, that he would regard the most important achievement of Merleau-Ponty to be his remarkable treatment of the relation between the visual and the verbal—the complex interplay between language and perception that we find in his chapter on the “chiasm,” in the essay “Eye and Mind,” and in the impressive work on painting, in which Merleau-Ponty shows how color, texture, and the whole material arrangement of painting is already a rhythm, a harmony, a language and system that contains its own logic, its own mode of ideality, its own structure of memory and rigorous abstraction. “Once this strange system of exchanges is given.” Merleau-Ponty writes in “Eye and Mind,” “we find before us all the problems of painting” (164). And again in the chapter on the chiasm, he writes:

“Pure” ideality already streams forth along the articulations of the aesthetological body, along the contours of the sensible things. …It is as though the visibility that animates the sensible world were to emigrate, not outside of every body, but into another less heavy, more transparent body, as though it were to change flesh, abandoning the flesh of the body for that language. (VI 200/152-53)

“Ideality” would thus be given, not by the systematic logic of the philosophical tradition, but by that level of abstraction which is grasped by the painter’s eye and hand, that process of “emigration” which allows the visible world to inhabit the domain of language. Lacan was concerned for many years with the interplay between the imaginary and me symbolic, and there is perhaps no other thinker who addressed this problem with more diligence and sensitivity than Merleau-Ponty. Yet this is not what concerns Lacan when he turns to Merleau-Ponty’s last work.

Instead, we find that his remarks arc entirely focused on the Freudian concept of the drive, and that he turns to Merleau-Ponty’s account of the “gaze” in order to claim that the gaze is not a matter of vision or perception, nor even a matter of the invisible horizon of visibility, but must rather be understood as an object, and more precisely as the object of the drive. In short, the “gaze” is a version of the “object a” in Lacan, and it therefore concerns the category of the real, which is neither symbolic nor imaginary. As he says in the chapter entitled “What Is a Picture?” “The objet a in the field of the visible is the gaze” (SXI 97/105). The “gaze” is therefore placed by Lacan within a series of objects, each of which corresponds to a different corporeal dimension, a different aspect of the body. As we know, Freud distinguishes between different forms of the drive, and we find in his work a series of objects, the “breast,” the “feces,” the “phallus,” and so on, objects that correspond to the oral, anal, and phallic stages of what Lacan calls the constitution of the subject; and Lacan adds to the Freudian list, giving special attention to two other objects, the gaze and the voice—the first being the object of the scopic drive, the second being the object of what he calls the “vocative” drive. Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on the gaze are thus taken up by Lacan in terms of the object of the scopic drive, and thus in terms of a very specific moment in the constitution of the subject. This leads him to an entire series of questions that are quite removed from the ones Merleau-Ponty was asking in his final work. This difference in orientation is considerable and should not be overlooked, but it should nevertheless be possible to show how Lacan came to find his own concerns already present in Merleau-Ponty, though in a veiled or indirect way.

3. Beyond “Intentionality”: The Gaze and the Superego

We can distinguish three different moments in Lacan’s treatment of The Visible and the Invisible, one which designates the continuous path of Merleau-Ponty’s work, another which marks out what is new in his last writings, and finally a moment in which Lacan parts company with Merleau-Ponty. These three moments are stressed on several occasions by Lacan, and merit further elaboration.

In Seminar XI, in the chapter called “The Eye and the Gaze,” Lacan writes: “This work, Le Visible et l’invisible, may indicate the moment of arrival of the philosophical tradition. . . In this work, which is both an end and a beginning, you will find both a recapitulation and a step forward” in relation to The Phenomenology of Perception (SXI 68/71). He elaborates the recapitulation as follows:

One finds a recapitulation of the regulatory junction of form . . . which is governed, not only by the subject’s eye, but by his expectations, his movement, his grip, his muscular and visceral emotion—in short, his constitutive presence, directed in what is called his total intentionality. (SXI 68-69/71)

As always, this attention to form, and to the formative power of embodied life, is intended to avoid the alternative of idealism and empiricism: beginning with the gradual, quasi-dialectical movement in which the world takes shape and is realized through actual experience, thereby providing the subject with the finite, material horizon of its own corporeal existence and cognitive activity, Merleau- Ponty’s attention to form is intended to avoid the division between subject and object, the alternative which forces us to choose between (1) the traditional, constituting subject whose representations would serve as the transcendental origin of things, and (2) the domain of empirical positivity which would precede consciousness and exist independently, patiently awaiting the subject’s exploration. This concept of form also entails a more careful analysis of the body. The body provides us with a point of access to things, but it is also of the things themselves: its flesh is the flesh of the world. “To be sure,” Merleau-Ponty says in the chapter on the chiasm, “one can reply that… there is the abyss that separates the In Itself from the For Itself…But here, seeking to form our first concept in such a way as to avoid the classical impasses, we do not have to honor the difficulties that they may present” (VI 180/136-37). Like the concept of form, the question of the body thus continues to provide Merleau-Ponty with a properly phenomenological point of departure that would correct the deficiencies and contradictions of the philosophical tradition. Lacan begins by recognizing the continuity between this new vocabulary of the “flesh” and Merleau-Ponty’s earlier work, noting that the relation between the seer and the visible, between the touching and the touched, is in some respects a reformulation of earlier concerns.

In addition to this recapitulation, however, we also find something new: “Merleau-Ponty now makes the next step by forcing the very limits of this phenomenology” (SXI 69/71-72). How does Lacan characterize this “next step,” and what allows him to regard it as marking the “limits of… phenomenology”? We must understand Merleau-Ponty’s “step forward,” Lacan claims, through fee concept of the invisible, a concept Lacan specifies in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the gaze, and more precisely, in terms of the division between the eye and the gaze. For with the concept of the ”invisible,” Merleau-Ponty brings to our attention what we might call the dependence of the visible on a gaze that precedes it, a gaze that opens the domain of visibility. As Merleau-Ponty says, “It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible.” He elaborates:

What there is then are not things first identical to themselves, which would then offer themselves to the seer [au voyant], nor is there a seer who is first empty and who, afterward, would open himself to them—but something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look [en le palpant du regard] things we could not dream of seeing “all naked” because the gaze itself [le regard meme] envelopes them, clothes them with its own flesh. Whence does it happen that in so doing it leaves them in their place, that the vision [la vision] we acquire of them seems to us to come from them. (VI T73/T31)

We must stress this final phrase, for it is this peculiar independence of the visible world that interests Lacan—not the autonomous existence of empirical things (a classical theme of philosophy), but the peculiar way in which vision occurs only under the sovereign, and pervading experience of a gaze which comes from the things themselves, a gaze which continues itself m the very act of one’s own sensory experience. “What is this talisman of color,” Merleau- Ponty writes, “this singular virtue of the visible that makes it, held at the end of the gaze, nonetheless much more than a correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon we as a continuation of its own sovereign existence?” (VI 173/131). And again, in another passage, Merleau-Ponty writes: “he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world he looks at… it is necessary that the vision… be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible” (VI 177/134). It is this imposition (”it imposes my vision upon me”), this sovereign invisibility of a “gaze” that precedes all our seeing, that allows Merleau-Ponty to restructure the entire question of “intentionality” and the subject-object relation.

What does Lacan take from this analysis? He is unequivocal: “What we have to circumscribe, by means of the path he indicates for us, is the pre-existence of a gaze—I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides” (SXI 69/72). “This experience of being under the gaze is what constitutes Merleau-Ponty’s “step forward” according to Lacan: “I mean, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty points this out, that we are beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world” (SXI 71/74-75).

We have thus arrived at the second stage of Lacan’s reading, the point where we can grasp what is new in Merleau-Ponty’s last work. Why, then, does Lacan find it necessary to reformulate Merleau- Ponty’s account of the “gaze”? Before we take up this question, let us open a parenthesis—for already at this second stage in Lacan’s account, it is possible to locate a certain convergence between Merleau-Ponty’s remarks and the concerns of Freudian theory. Faced with Merleau-Ponty’s analysis, and before any divergence between them, we can ask what Lacan will make of the “gaze.” How will Lacan develop Merleau-Ponty’s claim, and what does he regard as its importance for our understanding of the subject? Is the “gaze” a matter of the imaginary or the symbolic? Will it lead Lacan to a reflection on narcissism, or is it rather a question of the superego—a reflection on the punishing and obscurely malevolent presence that seems to watch us from above, invisible and omnipresent, like an agent of the Law that has suddenly shown its sadistic face? One recalls the last sentences of Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Child’s Relations with Others” (1960):

We might ask what kind of relationship must be established between the crisis at three years mentioned by Wallon and the Oedipal phase of development which certain psyche/analysts locate at the same moment and which accompanies the emergence of the superego, the true “objective” relation, and the surpassing of narcissism. (155)

Could it be that the very moment in which narcissism is apparently overcome, the very moment in which the excesses of the ego appear to be tamed, and a mature, “objective” relation to the world has been established, is also, paradoxically, a moment in which the most unnatural dimension of the Other is manifested? Could it be that the supposed transcendence of narcissism somehow entails the peculiar production of the gaze, a dimension of experience in which the very fact of vision, the most “natural” sensory experience, is haunted by a peculiar, invisible, and tyrannical presence, a presence that cannot be seen but that looks at us and secretly governs the movement of the body with its own malicious or uncanny intention, soliciting our look, directing our vision as an extension of its own imperious existence? What does it mean for Lacan, and for the theory of the subject, when Merleau-Ponty opens up this experience in which we are “looked at in the spectacle of the world” (SXI 71/74-75)? Is it a matter of narcissism, or is it something that emerges precisely in the surpassing of narcissism?

Merleau-Ponty certainly seems to entertain the first possibility, when he writes these words in the chapter on the chiasm: “Since the seer is caught up (le voyant étant pris) in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.” Yet the passage immediately continues:

“And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at [je me sens regardé] by the things, my activity is equally passivity—which is the second and more profound sense of narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the others see it, the contour of the body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen (qui voit et qui est vu). (VI 183/139)

The gaze in Merleau-Ponty’s sense would thus seem to emerge only in the moment at which narcissism is overcome, only when the mirror no longer gives me back to myself in an imaginary form, only when my body is no longer its own possession, its own unity, but is rather mat opening upon the world in which “the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.” Let us not pursue these questions any further here. It is enough to see the first points of contact between Merleau-Ponty and Freud, as Lacan seems to present them. Let us close this parenthesis, and continue with our exegesis.

The concept of the gaze is a recapitulation, but it is also a “step forward” in relation to the earlier analyses of form and Gestalt. And this step forward would mark the limits of phenomenology insofar as it opens a certain invisibility at the heart of the visible, something that cannot be seen. that is beyond “appearance’” and “phenomenon,” but that looks at me as I look at the world, with a gaze that solicits my vision in advance, even before I begin to see. And since it is a matter of being seen, being “looked at from all sides,” the gaze is not a property of the subject, a power to look or to speculate, but something that comes from the world of things. The gaze is not a property of the subject, but at the same time, it is not a property of objects, a natural phenomenon, a feature of the empirical world, or even a characteristic of light, but something that precedes the domain of the visible and opens it up to our look. Such would be Merleau-Ponty’s step beyond phenomenology, as Lacan presents it: the gaze does not belong to empirical things, but designates a dimension of invisibility—not a transcendent sphere, but a domain of experience that is unique to the human animal, and that captures the peculiar character of human embodiment, something that cannot be grasped in terms of “subject” and “object,” sensory perception and external positivity.

In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau-Ponty speaks not of visibility, but of “the soil of the sensible and opened world”: “scientific thinking,” he writes,

[…] must return to the “there is” which underlies it; to the site, the soil of the sensible and opened world such as it is in our life and for our body—not that possible body which we may legitimately think of as an information machine but that actual body I call mine, [a body which can only be understood in its conjunction with] associated bodies… the others who haunt me and whom I haunt… as no animal ever haunted those beings of his own species. (EM 160-61)

It is therefore a question of the body not as an organism with its sensory-motor capacities, its memories and expectations, but as a uniquely human phenomenon: “not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement” (EM 162), the body without which “there would be no humanity.” (EM” 163)

In short, the gaze is not a property of the subject, but it is not a property of things either; a feature of the visible itself. It has no specular image, but is rather something invisible, something that cannot be seen but that nevertheless comes from the world of things, something that, in Lacan’s language, comes from the Other, preceding my vision and calling it forth, “such that it imposes my vision upon me” (V/173/131), continuing itself in the very act of my vision, reducing my most active sensory exploration to a fundamental passivity, and indeed to the very point at which we may speak of the annihilation of the subject (see SXI 78, 83/82,88). The gaze is something to which I am subjected. This is what Lacan isolates from Merleau-Ponty’s last work: “It is no doubt this seeing, to which I am subjected in an original way, that must lead us to the aims of this work.” (SXI 69/72)

4. Negotiating Platonism: Chora or Subject?

According to Lacan, we thus have in The Visible and the Invisible a recapitulation of earlier themes and also a step forward, which consists, in the elaboration of the concept of the gaze. Finally, however, we must mark out the point at which Lacan parts company with Merleau-Ponty, the point at which his analysis of the gaze takes a different direction. For he also writes in this chapter that “the field offered us by Merleau-Ponty… is presented by its most factitious, not to say outworn, effects” (SXI 69/72). He continues:

It is not between the invisible and the visible that we have to pass. The split that concerns us is not the distance that derives from the fact that there are forms imposed by the world towards which the intentionality of phenomenological experience directs us… The gaze is presented to us only in the form of… our experience, namely, the lack that constitutes castration anxiety. The eye and the gaze—this is for us the split in which the drive is manifested at the level of the scopic field. (SXI 69-70/72-73)

We have distinguished three moments in Lacan’s analysis: first, a recognition of those elements in The Visible and the Invisible which deepen and continue Merleau-Ponty’s entire philosophical trajectory; second, the introduction of a genuinely new beginning, the invisible horizon of visibility; and finally, a divergence, in which Merleau-Ponty’s analysis would be deficient from a Freudian point of view.

In the next chapter, “Anamorphosis,” we find the same three steps. This chapter provides an analysis of the scopic drive, and Lacan returns again to Merleau-Ponty, acknowledging that “the scopic function is situated…by Merleau-Ponty’s recently published work, Le Visible et l’invisible” (SXI 75/79). At this point, having introduced Merleau-Ponty’s name, Lacan recalls some major figures in the philosophical tradition, and in two pages he refers to various conceptions of the subject—(1) “the irreducible method of Bishop Berkeley,” which “goes so far as to reduce the subject apprehended by the Cartesian meditation to a power of annihilation,” (2) the Hegelian revolution which “throws the subject towards the transforming historical action,” and finally, (3) “as for the meditation on being that reaches its culmination in the thought of Heidegger, it restores to being itself that power of annihilation” (SXI 77/81). This does not tell us much about the philosophical tradition, but it allows us to see how Lacan situates Merleau-Ponty’s work: “This is also the point to which Merleau-Ponty leads us” (SXI 77/81). Here again, according to Lacan, we have a continuation of the philosophical tradition in its reflection on the subject, and a certain “negativity” in the subject, but one that is formulated in a manner that carries us right to the limit of this tradition, right through Heidegger’s deepest ontological investigations. We are now presented with a conception of the “flesh” as the element in which my body as well as the things themselves are given. As Merleau-Ponty himself says:

[…] the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporeity: it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication….It is thus, and not as the bearer of a knowing subject, that our body commands the visible for us, but it does not explain it, does not clarify it, but only concentrates the mystery of its scattered visibility; and it is indeed a paradox of Being, not a paradox of man, that we are dealing with here. (VI 178-80/l35-36)

Following Mzerleau-Ponty, and regarding his work as a path that takes us right to the limit of the tradition, to the point at which the question of the subject can no longer be posed in anthropological terms, Lacan nevertheless insists that Merleau-Ponty does not take us far enough, at least not far enough to grasp what is at stake in the psychoanalytic account of the scopic function, of the gaze as an object of the drive. Following his summary of the tradition and his reference to Heidegger, Lacan writes:

[…] this is… the point to which Merleau-Ponty leads us. But if you refer to his text you will see that it is at this point that he chooses to withdraw, in order to propose a return to the sources of intuition concerning the visible and the invisible, to come back to that which is prior to all reflection, thetic or non-thetic, in order-to locate the emergence of vision itself. For him, it is a question of restoring…. the way by which, not from the body, but from something he calls the flesh of the’” world, the original point of vision was able to emerge. (SXI 77/81 -82)

Why does Lacan regard Merleau-Ponty’s meditation as somehow falling short, or withdrawing in the face of its own most radical analysis? Is it because Merleau-Ponty’s account of the gaze somehow remains bound to the metaphysical tradition, or marked by a certain “Platonism”? Some writers (in particular Lacanian analysts) have made precisely this claim, arguing that, for Merleau-Ponty, there is an all-seeing presence, something like a Platonic divine being who remains unseen, invisible, but who looks at us and directs our vision toward the splendor of the phenomenal world (see Quinet, “Look” and “Gaze”). This is a reductive and mistaken account of Merleau- Ponty, and Lacan himself does not appear to settle for it. To be sure, it is a possible understanding, a possible way of taking, or perhaps mistaking the strange experience of the gaze. As Lacan says, “The spectacle of the world, in this sense, appears to us as all-seeing. This is me phantasy to be found in the Platonic perspective of an absolute being” (SXI 71/75). But we do not have to put this phantasy of an absolute being in place of the “phenomenon” (it one can still use this term) that Merleau-Ponty uncovers for us, even if the phenomenon of the gaze may also explain the phantasy that it makes possible. Lacan writes: “There is no need for us to refer to some supposition of me existence of a universal seer” (SXI 71/74).

Let us be clear on this point: Lacan seems to entertain the possibility for a moment that Merleau-Ponty indeed falls prey to the idea of a “Platonic” universal seer, a sort of “substance” or primordial “element” which would precede me subject and serve as its place of birth, its origin, chora, and so on. Referring to the “gaze” that comes from the world and solicits our vision in advance, and to the concept of the “flesh,” Lacan writes:

It would seem that in this way one sees, in this unfinished work, the emergence of something like the search for an unnamed substances from which I, the seer, extract myself. From the toils (rets), or rays (rais), if you prefer, of an iridescence of which I am at first a part, I emerge as eye. (SXI 77/82)

On this view, the gaze would be something that, in the arena of vision, functions like the chora, the primordial substance or place that would precede the subject, and from which the subject would emerge. But this is not what Lacan takes Merleau-Ponty to be doing. He immediately adds: “Yet is this the way he really wished to take? The traces that remain of the part to come from his meditation [i.e. the “working notes”] permit us to doubt it” (SXI 77/82). What then is Merleau-Ponty doing, if not engaging in the great, speculative enterprise of the metaphysical tradition, “the search for an unnamed substance” (SXI 77/82)? In Lacan’s view, “he may have been directed towards some search/original in relation to the philosophical tradition, towards that new dimension of meditation on the subject that analysis enables us to trace” (SXI 77-78/82). It is therefore a new meditation on the subject, and not a metaphysical speculation on primordial substance, that Lacan finds in the concept of the gaze.

5. Of Sacrifice: The Other and the Object

Why then does he insist that psychoanalysis must part company with Merleau-Ponty, or that we will find in psychoanalysis a more precise account of the gaze than we find in Merleau-Ponty? The answer to this question is obvious: where Merleau-Ponty presents the gaze as something that comes from the world—not from objects in the world but from the world as a whole, the world in a phenomenological sense, and even perhaps from the experience of the worldhood of the world, that invisible horizon in which visible things find their place—where Merleau-Ponty, in other words, presents the gaze as something that, in Lacan’s language, comes from the Other, Lacan by contrast regards the gaze as an object, not as an empirical thing but as a specific form of the objet petit a, and more precisely as the object of the scopic drive. What does this mean, and what is its importance for our understanding of the subject?

In order to clarify this final point, let us return to the question of passivity, to the point at which Lacan speaks of the experience of the gaze as something “to which I am subjected,” so that we may even speak of the “annihilation of the subject.” In the experience of the gaze, “we find ourselves looked at in the spectacle of the world” (SXI 71/74-75). Our look is solicited in advance by a gaze that continues itself in the very act of my perception. Thus, in the experience of the gaze, my perception is revealed in its fundamental passivity—not a passivity understood as the familiar opposite of “activity,” in keeping with a symmetrical and binary dualism, but a more fundamental, more primordial passivity, on the basis of which both passivity and activity are possible. It is a question of that elemental experience which precedes the division between subject and object and makes possible both my passive reception of sensory data and my active, intentionally directed exploration of the world. The flesh opens us to a fundamental passivity in which activity and passivity, subject and object, no longer retain their traditional meaning. Stressing this point, and noting the remarkable richness of Merleau-Ponty’s prose, its atmosphere of luxurious sensuality, Lacan asks the following question: “Is there no satisfaction in being under the gaze?” (SXI 71/75). Why does Lacan focus on the question of “satisfaction” at precisely this” moment, at precisely this level in the structure of the subject? We are brought by Merleau-Ponty to see the remarkable way in which our look is already possessed, already compelled to emigrate beyond itself, to be seduced and captivated in advance by the gaze of the world, a gaze which continues itself in my own experience of vision, as if my sight were the implement and medium of a gaze that comes from the Other. “What does this mean,” Lacan asks, if not that “some form of ’sliding away’ of the subject is apparent” (SXI 72/75)? One hundred pages later, Lacan returns to this point, claiming that it is precisely in the encounter with its own lack, its own radical division, and as a unique attempt to circumvent that division, that “the subject makes himself the object of another will” (SXI 168/185), “It is the subject who determines himself as object, in his encounter with the division of subjectivity” (SXI 168/185). We thus see more clearly the function of the “objet petit a” in Lacan, as a paradoxical “object of lack.” a localization of lack, a “particularization” which allows the lack in the Other to be veiled at the very moment of its manifestation and veiled in a quite precise way, namely, in a peculiar instance of substitution (metaphor), which Lacan regards as sacrificial, since the subject offers himself up as the object that shows itself to be missing in the Other, identifying himself with the primordially lost “Thing” which makes the symbolic order incomplete. This is why Lacan claims that the experience of the gaze has to do with the lack that constitutes “castration anxiety”: “the eye and the gaze—this is for us the split in which the drive is manifested at the level of the scopic field” (SXI 69-70/72-73). “At this level,” Lacan says, “we are not even forced to take into account any subjectification of the subject. The subject is an apparatus. This apparatus is something lacunary, and it is in the lacuna that the subject establishes the function of a certain object, qua lost object” (SXI 168/185). In short, in the experience of the gaze, it is the subject who identifies with the object that would make the Other complete, fading or vanishing in a sacrificial movement of identification.

In 1963, during the only session of the cancelled seminar on the Names-of-the-Father, Lacan provides a remarkable account of the sacrifice of Isaac and the symbolic relation which allows the ram to be substituted for the child, thereby also defining a new relation between the Jewish people and the Other, beyond this “pound of flesh,” beyond the sacrificial labor that seeks to satisfy the Divine jouissance. In the face of the enigma presented by the inscrutable Other, the void that is opened by this “question of being” (”What does the Other want from me”?), the subject can only be propelled into a profound and unnatural anxiety—one that brings with it a peculiar temptation: in Lacan’s words, “the offering to obscure gods of an object of sacrifice is something to which few subjects can resist succumbing, as if under some monstrous spell” (SXI 246/275). The symbolic pact of substitution, represented by the hand of the angel, a hand that reaches out to touch the hand of Abraham, stopping it at the very instant of the sacrificial cut, at the very limit of the Law, is thus a new way of touching, a new way of negotiating the division, within the field of the Other, between desire and jouissance.

It is here that we find the clearest division Between Lacan and Merleau-Ponty: for Lacan, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis has shown us— perhaps without intending to do so— what Freud meant when he spoke of the satisfaction of the drive, a phrase Lacan recalls in asking, “Is there no satisfaction in being under the gaze?” (SXI 71/75). It is a question, for Lacan, of that peculiar pleasure in which we simultaneously see the annihilation of the subject, the fading or aphanesis of the subject, that fundamental mark of death which Freud insisted upon when he wrote that all the drives are death drives. For Lacan, it is a question of distinguishing between the pleasure of the drive, that pleasure in which the subject disappears (which Lacan called jouissance), and, by contrast, the order of desire in which the subject finds its life. According to Lacan, this is the antithesis that Merleau-Ponty uncovers, without pursuing it in the direction Freud requires us to take: the experience of being under the gaze, and more precisely the satisfaction that attends it, is precisely the experience of the scopic drive, that primordial experience which is always a possibility of the subject, but one in which desire is lost, and the subject moves toward its own annihilation.

Diacritics, vol. 27 no.4, Winter 1997.

Art: Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, C-print, 2006.