Ars Electronica 1992
Festival-Program 1992
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Festival 1979-2007


The gaze of the thing

'Slavoj Zizek Slavoj Zizek

The crucial shot in Psycho, perhaps even the quintessence of Hitchcock, is the shot from above of the second-floor hall and staircase in the "mother's house". This mysterious shot occurs twice. In the scene of Arbogast's murder, the shot of Arbogast from the top of the stairs (i.e. from what is still a "normal" perspective, accessible to human eyes) all of a sudden "takes off", jumps back into the air and passes into the uppermost point from which the entire scene in its ground plan is on view. The scene of Norman carrying the mother into the cellar also begins with an "inquisitive" shot from the bottom of the same staircase – that is to say, with a shot which, although not subjective, automatically sets up the viewer in the position of somebody striving to overhear the conversation between Norman and his mother in the room upstairs; in an extremely arduous and long travelling whose very trajectory mimics the shape of a Moebius band, the camera then elevates and simultaneously turns around its axis, so that it reaches the same point of "God's view" on the entire scene. The inquisitive perspective sustained by the desire to penetrate the secret of the house finds its accomplishment in its opposite, in the objective overview of the scene, as if returning to the viewer the message "you wanted to see it all, so here you have it, the transparent groundplan of the entire scene, with no fourth side (off-field) excluded. The crucial feature of this travelling is that it does not follow the trajectory of the standard Hitchcockian travelling (from the establishing plan rendering the overview of the scene to the "stain" which sticks out, but obeys a different, almost opposite logic: from the ground-level gaze which invites the viewer's identification to the position of pure metalanguage. At this precise moment, the lethal Thing ("Mother") enters through the right-hand door; its odd, "unnatural" character is indicated by the way it moves: with slow, discontinuous, intercepted, cut movements, as if what we see is a doll revivified, a living dead, not a true living person. – The explanation offered by Hitchcock himself in his conversations with Truffaut is, as is usually the case, deceptive in its very disarming persuasiveness; Hitchcock enumerates two reasons for including this "God's view" (1) 1): it makes the scene transparent and thus enables the director to keep the identity of the "Mother" secret without arousing the suspicion of cheating or hiding something; 2): it introduces a contrast between the serene, immovable "God's view" and the next shot, the dynamic view of Arbogast falling down the stairs.(2)

What Hitchcock's explanation fails to provide is simply the reason of the cut from the "normal" ground-level view on Arbogast to the groundplan view from above, i.e. of the inclusion of "God's view" (or, in the second case, the reason of the long continuous travelling from the groundlevel inquisitive view to "God's view"). The cut which then follows in the murder of Arbogast is even more odious: it transposes us from the level of reality (i.e. from the standpoint of pure metalanguage making transparent the ground plan of reality) into the Real, into the "stain" which sticks out from the frame of reality: while we observe the scene from "God's view", the "stain" (the murderous Thing) enters the frame, and the next shot renders precisely the point-of-view of this stain. This cut to the subjective view of the murderer himself (herself?) – i.e. to the impossible gaze of the Thing which has just entered the visual field of reality -accomplishes, in Hegelese, the reflection-into-self of the objective gaze into the gaze of the object itself as such, it designates the precise moment of passing over into perversion. The inherent dynamic of the entire scene of Arbogast's murder epitomizes Psycho's trajectory from hysteria to perversion (3): hysteria is defined by the identification of the subject's desire with the desire of the other (in this case, of the viewer's desire with the inquisitive desire of Arbogast qua diegetic personality), whereas perversion involves an identification with the "impossible" gaze of the object-Thing itself when the knife cuts Arbogast's face, we see it through the very eyes of the "impossible" murderous Thing(4) . In Lacanian mathemes, we thus passed from $Oa to aO$: from the subject peering anxiously into the space in front of him, looking in it for the traces of "more than meets the eye", i.e. for the mysterious maternal Thing, to the gaze of the Thing itself on the subject. (5)

Hitchcock's explanation according to which the function of "God's view" was to keep us, viewers, in ignorance (as to the Mother's identity), without arousing suspicion that the director is trying to hide something from us, imposes therefore an unexpected, yet unavoidable conclusion: if we are kept ignorant by assuming God's view, then a certain radical ignorance must pertain to the status of God himself who clearly comes to epitomize a blind run of the symbolic machine.

Hitchcock's God goes His way, indifferent to our petty human affairs -more precisely, he is totally unable to understand us, living humans, since his realm is that of the dead (i.e. since symbol is the murder of thing). On that account, he is like God from the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, who, "being only accustomed to communication with the dead, does not understand living men"(6) – or, to quote Schreber himself:

"… in accordance with the Order of Things, God really knew nothing about living men and did not need to know; consonantly with the Order of Things, He needed only to have communication with corpses." (7)
This Order of Things is, of course, none other than the symbolic order which mortifies the living body and evacuates from it the substance of Enjoyment. That is to say, God qua Name-of-the-Father, reduced to a figure of symbolic authority, is "dead" (also) in the sense that he does not know anything about enjoyment, about life substance: the symbolic order (the big Other) and enjoyment are radically incompatible. (8)

Which is why the famous Freudian dream of a son who appears to his father and reproaches him with "Father, can't you see I'm burning?", could be simply translated into "Father, can't you see I'm enjoying?" – can't you see I'm alive, burning with enjoyment? Father cannot see it since he is dead, whereby the possibility is open to me to enjoy not only outside his knowledge, i.e. unbeknownst to him, but also in his very ignorance. The other, no less known Freudian dream, that about the father who does not know he is dead, could thus be supplemented with" (I, the dreamer, enjoy the fact that) father does not know he is dead".(9)

To return to Psycho: the "stain" (Mother) thus strikes as the prolonged hand of the blinded deity, as his senseless intervention in the world. -The subversive character of this reversal comes to light when we confront it with another, almost identical, reversal at work, among others, in Fred Walton's When a Stranger Calls, perhaps the best variation on the theme of anonymous phone menaces. The first part of the film is narrated from the point of view of a young girl babysitting in a suburban family-mansion: the children are asleep on the first floor, while she watches TV in the sitting room. After the first threatening calls repeating the demand "Did you check the children?", she alerts the police who advise her to lock all the doors firmly, not to allow anybody to enter the house and to try to engage the molester in long conversation enabling the police to trace the call. Soon afterwards, the police locate their source: another telephone within the same house … The molester was there all the time and has already killed the children. The killer appears thus as an unfathomable object with whom no identification is possible, a pure real provoking unspeakable terror. – At this point in the story, however, the film takes an unexpected turn: we are suddenly transposed into the perspective of the killer himself, witnessing the miserable everyday existence of this lonely and desperate individual – he sleeps in an asylum, wanders around sordid cafes and attempts in vain to establish contact with his neighbours; so that when the detective hired by the murdered children's father prepares to stab him, our sympathies are wholly on the poor killer's side.

As in Psycho itself, there is nothing subversive about the two points of view in themselves; if the story were narrated from the sole perspective of the young babysitter, we would have the standard case of a victim threatened by a phantom-like, bodyless and, for that reason, all the more horrifying menace; if we were limited to the murderer's self-experience, we would have the standard rendition of the murderer's pathological universe. The entire subversive effect hangs upon the rupture, the passage from one perspective to the other, the change which confers upon the hitherto impossible / unattainable object a body, which gives the untouchable Thing a voice and makes it speak – in short, which subjectivizes it. The killer is first depicted as an untouchable, horrendous entity, as an object in the Lacanian sense, with all the transferential energy invested in him; then, we are all of a sudden transposed into his own perspective.(10) Yet the crucial feature of Psycho is that Hitchcock precisely does not accomplish this step towards subjectivization: when we are thrown into the "subjective" gaze of the Thing, the Thing, although it "becomes subject", does not subjectivize itself, does not "open up", does not "reveal its depth", does not offer itself to our emphatic compassion, does not open a crack which would enable us to take a peep into the wealth of its self-experience. The point-of-view shot makes it even more inaccessible – we look through its eyes, and this very coincidence of our view with the Thing's gaze intensifies its radical Otherness to an almost unbearable degree.
Another way to define this gaze of the Thing on the subject which subverts the usual opposition of "subjective" and "objective", is to say that it marks the moment when the subject is immediately entrapped in, caught into, the dream of the Other-Thing – as Gilles Deleuze puts it, "si vous êtes pris dans le reve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu". In Hitchcock's films prior to Psycho, a similar shot occurs twice: in Vertigo, when, in his dream, Scottie (James Stewart) stares at his own head, depicted as a kind of psychotic partial object located in the point of convergence of the running lines in the background; and, first of all, 30 years previously in Murder, when, seconds before his suicidal jump, a series of visions appear to Fane during his flying on the trapeze, first the faces of the two main protagonists (Sir John and Nora), then the swinging void. This scene seems to rely on the standard shot / countershot procedure: the objective shot of Fane alternates with the subjective shot of his visions, which is why interpreters (Rothmann, for example) concentrate on the content of his visions; the true mystery of the scene is, however, the uncanny "objective" shots of Fane, who flies in the air and gapes into the camera with a strange, masochist-aggressive gaze. The basic impression of this shot (and of the two similar shots from Vertigo and Psycho) is that the "natural" relationship between movement and the state of rest is reversed: it is as if the head which gapes into the camera (the point of gaze) is at a standstill, whereas the entire world around it runs dizzily and loses clear contours, in contrast to the "true" state of things where the head dashes by and the background stands still. (11)

The homology of this impossible gaze from the point-of-view of the Thing which "freezes" the subject, reduces him to immobility, with anamorphosis is by no means accidental: it is as if, in the three above-mentioned shots, the anamorphotic stain acquires clear and recognizable outlines, while all the rest, the remaining reality, becomes blurred. In short, we look at the screen from the point of anomorphosis, from the point which makes the stain clear – and the price paid for it is the "loss of reality". (A more humorous, yet not so effective version of it occurs in Strangers on a Train, in the shot of the crowd on the tribune of the tennis-court: all the heads turn in the same rhythm, following the ball -except one, that of the assassin Bruno who stares rigidly into the camera, i.e. into Guy, who is observing the tribune.) (12)

The gaze of the Thing thus concludes the "triad" the terms of which form a kind of "negation of negation": (1) the shot / counter-shot alternation of Arbogast and what he sees remains at the level of the standard suspense -the investigator enters a forbidden domain where an unknown X lurks, i.e. where every object depicted is coloured by the subject's desire and / or anxiety; (2) the cut into an objective "God's view" on the entire scene "negates" this level, i.e. obliterates the stain of the subject's "pathological" interests; (3) the subjective shot of what the murderer sees "negates" the objectivity of "God's view". This subjective shot is the "negation of negation" of the subjective shot of what Arbogast sees at the beginning of the scene: it is a return to the subject, yet to the subject beyond subjectivity, which is why there is no identification possible with it – in contrast to our identifying with Arbogast's inquisitive glance at the beginning, we now occupy an impossible point of absolute Strangeness. We are brought face to face with this strangeness at the very end of the film when Norman raises his eyes and looks straight into the camera: while we look at Arbogast's cut-up face, we see it through these same eyes. (13) The crucial feature not to be missed here is the codependence between the objective shot from above ("God's view") and the point-of-view shot of Arbogast's cut-up face which immediately follows it (therein consists the contrast Hitchcock refers to). In order to elucidate it, let us perform a simple mental experiment and imagine the scene of Arbogast's murder without the "God's view", i.e. confined to the limits of the standard shot / counter-shot procedure: after a series of signs registering the imminent threat (a crack in the second-floor door, etc.), one gets a point-of-view shot of Arbogast as seen through the murderer's eyes … in this way, the effect of the "gaze of the Thing" would be lost, the subjective shot would not function as the gaze of the impossible Thing, but as a simple point-of-view shot of one of the diegetic personae with whom the viewer can easily identify.

In other words, "God's view" is needed to clear the field of all subjective identifications, to effectuate what Lacan calls "destitution subjective" – it is only on this condition that the subjective point-of-view shot which follows it is not perceived as a view of one of the diegetic subjects, but as the impossible gaze of the Thing. Here, one should recall the remarks of Jean Narboni which refer precisely to Arbogast's climbing up the stairs, on how Hitchcockian shot / counter shot procedure epitomizes the impossility of a "free investigative, autonomous and active gaze not determined by things, belonging to the subject-investigator who is not himself part of the rebus, i.e. of what Hitchcock calls "tapestry'".

"… why do we have, apropos of so many Hitchcock's scenes shot from a subjective point-of-view, the feeling that the person's gaze does not reveal things, that his step does not lead him towards things, but that things themselves stare at him, attract him in a dangerous way, grab him and are at the point of swallowing him, as occurs in an exemplary wayin Psycho when the detective Arbogast climbs the stairs? The will is never free, subjectivity is always under constraint and caught." (14)

Yet this tie that so to speak pins the subject to objects – the foundation of Hitchcock's "subjective mise-en-scene" – is not his last word: the view from above that procures the geometrically transparent groundplan of the scene and which follows Arbogast's climbing the stairs is precisely the impossible gaze which is autonomous, not determined by things, purified of all pathological identification, free of constraint (in the above mentioned later scene of Norman moving his mother to the cellar, the camera accomplishes this self- purification of the gaze within a continuous tracking-shot which begins as an inquisitive ground-level glance and ends with the same "God's view" of the entire scene; by means of its round movement, the gaze here literally disengages from, twists off, the pathological constraints). The cut from this neutral free gaze into the gaze of the Thing itself that follows is therefore an inherent subversion of its purity, i.e. not a relapse into subjectivity, but an entry into the dimension of the subject beyond subjectivity. – The suicide-scene in Murder involves a homologous formal dynamic: the suicidal jump is immediately preceded by a subjective shot which renders Fane's view of the arena and the public from the top of the circus tent, i.e. from a point which coincides with "God's view". This point-of-view shot registers Fane's purification: after enduring destitution subjective, after freeing himself of subjective identifications, he can throw himself downward, back into terrestrial reality, becoming an object-stain in it. The rope on which he hangs is the umbilical cord linking "God's view" – the position of a pure metalanguage, the view freed from all close-to-the-ground subjective identifications -with the obscene Thing which stains reality.
The antagonism of the objective "God's view" and the "subjective" gaze of the Thing repeats on another, far more radical level the standard antagonism of objective and subjective which regulates the shot / counter-shot procedure. This complicity of "God's view" and of the obscene Thing does not designate a simple complementary relationship of two extremes, but an absolute coincidence – their antagonism is of a purely topological nature, i.e. what we have is one and the some element inscribed on two surfaces, put on two registers: the obscene stain is nothing but the way the objective-neutral view of the entire picture is present in the picture itself. (In the above-mentioned "God's-view" shot of Bodega Bay from The Birds the same topological reversal is effectuated within the same shot: as soon as the birds enter the frame from behind the camera, the neutral "objective" shot turns into the "subjective" shot rendering the gaze of the obscene Thing, i.e. of the killing birds.) We thereby rejoin the two opposing features of Hitchcock's "Jansenism": (1) the determinatedness of subjective destinies by the transsubjective blind automatism of the symbolic machinery; (2) the priority of the gaze over what is seen, which makes the entire domain of "objectivity" dependent upon the gaze. This same antagonism defines the notion of the "big Other" at the moment when Lacan first elaborated it (in the early fifties, i.e. in his first two Seminars): the "big Other" is introduced as the unfathomable Otherness of the subject beyond the wall of language, and then unexpectedly reverts to a subjective blind automatism of the symbolic machine which regulates the play of intersubjectivity. And it is the same reversal which constitutes the dramatic tour de force of Rothmann's interpretation in The Murderous Gaze (15) : after hundreds of pages dedicated to the figure of absolute Otherness in Hitchcock's films, epitomized by the gaze into the camera, the final outcome of the analysis of Psycho is that this Otherness ultimately coincides with the machine (camera) itself.

In order to experience this paradoxical coincidence in a "living" form, it suffices to recall the two constituents of monsters, cyborgs, the living dead, etc.: they are machines which run blindly, without compassion, devoid of any "pathological" considerations, inaccessible to our pleas (the blind insistence of Schwarzenegger in Terminator, of the living dead in The Night of the Living Dead, etc.), yet at the same time, they are defined by the presence of an absolute gaze. What is truly horrifying about a monster is the way it seems to watch us all the time – without this gaze, the blind insistence of its drive would lose its uncanny character and turn into a simple mechanical force. The final dissolve of Norman's gaze into the mother's skull epitomizes this indecidability, this immediate coincidence of opposites which constitutes what is perhaps the ultimate Moebius band: the machine produces a left-over – the gaze qua stain, yet it suddenly turns out that this left-over comprises the machine itself. The sum is contained in its left-over – this umbilical link that pins the Whole on its stain is the absolute paradox that defines the subject.

This is, then, the last misapprehension to be clarified: the ultimate "secret" of Psycho, the secret epitomized by Norman's gaze into the camera, does not amount to a new version of the platitude on the unfathomable, ineffable, depth of a person beyond the wall of language, etc. The ultimate secret is that this Beyond is in itself hollow, devoid of any positive content: there is no depth of "soul" in it (Norman's gaze is utterly "soulless", like the gaze of monsters and the living dead) – as such, this Beyond coincides with gaze itself "beyond appearance there is not the Thing-in-itself, there is the gaze" (16) – it is as if Lacan's proposition bears directly on Norman's final gaze into the camera, it is as if it was made to summarize the ultimate lesson of Psycho. (17) Now, we can also answer Raymond Durgnat's (18) ironic remarks on the false "depth" of Hitchcock's films ("Potemkin submarines – a fleet of periscopes without hulls"); rather than being refuted, this description has to be transposed into the "thing itself": the odious lesson of Psycho is that "depth" itself (the unfathomable abyss which defines our phenomenological experience of the other as "person") is a "periscope without hull", an illusory effect of the surface, mirroring, like the veil painted by Parrhasios which brings forth the illusion of the content hidden behind it …

This gaze which reveals the true nature of the Beyond is the hard kernel of the Cartesian cogito, the bone that stuck in the throat of the contemporary critics of "Cartesian metaphysics of subjectivity". That is to say, one of the recurrent anti-Cartesian themes in contemporary philosophy from the late Wittgenstein to Habermas is that the Cartesian cogito allegedly failed to take into account the primacy of intersubjectivity: cogito – or so the story goes – is "monological" as to its structure and as such an alienated, reified, product that can emerge only against the background of intersubjectivity and its "lifeworld". In an implicit counter-movement to it, Psycho indexes the status of a subject which precedes intersubjectivity – a depthless void of pure Gaze which is nothing but a topological reverse of the Thing. This subject – the core of the allegedly "outdated" Cartesian problematic of Machine and Gaze, i.e. of the Cartesian double obsession with mechanics and optics-is what the pragmatic-hermeneutic intersubjective approach endeavours to neutralize at any price, since it impedes the subjectivization / narrativization, the subject's full integration into the symbolic universe.

The path of Hitchcock from his films of the thirties to Psycho thus in a way runs parallel to that of Lacan. In the fifties, Lacan's theory was also, via the motive of intersubjectivity, inscribed into the traditional anti-scientistic discourse: psychoanalysis has to avoid objectivizing the patient, in the psychoanalytic process, "truth" emerges as the result of intersubjective dialectic where the recognition of desire is inextricably linked to the desire for recognition … The Seminar on Transference (1960-1961) expressly abandons this problematic in favor of agalma, the "hidden treasure", the non-symbolizable object ("surplus-enjoyment") which is "in the subject more than the subject itself" and which thereby introduces into the intersubjective relationship an irreducible asymmetry. (19) In Lacan of the fifties, the object is reduced to the role of the "stake" in the intersubjective game of recognition (to desire an object is a means to desire the desire of the other who claims this object, etc.), whereas in the late Lacan, the object is what the subject is looking for in another subject, i.e. what bestows upon the subject his / her dignity. The nostalgia of many interpreters of Lacan, above all in Germany and England, for the "dialectical-intersubjective" Lacan of the fifties that fits so well the contemporary "life-world" and / or speech-act problematic (and can even be conceived as its forerunner) is therefore nothing but a form of resistance against Lacan, a desperate endeavour to neutralize the hard core of his theoretical edifice.

For a theory of Hitchcockian travelling cf. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 1991, p. 93-97. zurück

Cf. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, London: Panther Books 1969, p. 343-346. zurück

Cf. Raymond Bellour, "Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion", in Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, eds., Hitchcock Reader, Ames: Iowa State University Press 1986, p. 311-331. zurück

A propos of Jacob Boehm's mystical relationship to God qua Thing, Lacan says: "To confuse his contemplative eye with the eye with which God is looking at him must surely partake in perverse jouissance" ("God and the jouissance of The Woman", in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, NewYork: Norton 1982, p.1 47) zurück

This perverse gaze of the Thing emerges for the first time in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason; in the last paragraph of its first part, the question is raised of why God created the world in such a way that the Supreme Good is unknowable to us, finite humans, so that we cannot ever fully realize it? The only way to elude the hypothesis of an evil God who created the world with the express intention of annoying man, is to conceive the inaccessibility of the Thing (God, in this case) as a positive condition of our ethical activity: if God qua Thing were immediately to disclose himself to us, our activity could no longer be ethical, since we would not do Good because of moral Law itself but because of our direct insight into God's nature, i.e. out of the immediate assurance that Evil will be punished. The paradox of this explanation is that – for a brief moment, at least – Kant is forced to accomplish what is otherwise strictly prohibited in his "critical philosophy", i.e. the reversal from $Oa to aO$, and to view the world through the eyes of the Thing (God): his entire argument presupposes that we position ourselves within God's reasoning. zurück

Sigmund Freud, "Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Schreber)", in Case Histories 11, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1979, p. 156. zurück

Ibid. zurück

Cf. Abraham Lincoln's famous answer to a request for a special favour: "As President, I have no eyes but constitutional eyes; I cannot see YOU." zurück

Therein consists, according to Lacan, the dissymmetry between Oedipus and Jocaste: Oedipus did not know what he was doing, whereas his mother knew all the time who her sexual partner was – the source of her enjoyment was precisely Oedipus' ignorance. The notorius thesis on the intimate link between feminine enjoyment and ignorance acquires thereby a new, intersubjective dimension: woman enjoys in so far as her other (man) does not know. zurück

We encounter a homologous inversion in the foremost hard-boiled novels and films: the moment when the femme fatale subjectivizes herself. She is first rendered from the perspective of her (masculine) social environment and appears as a fatal object of fascination which brings perdition and leaves behind ruined lives, "empty shells"; when we are finally transposed into her point of view, it becomes manifest that she herself cannot dominate the effects of "what is in her more than herself", of the object in herself, upon her environment – no less than men around her, she is a helpless victim of Fate. zurück

It was of course the backwardness of the film technique which was ultimately responsible for such an impression: at that time, it was technically impossible to conceal the discord between the figure and its background; yet the paradox is that this very discord engenders the crucial artistic effect. zurück

One is even tempted to suggest that this shot reveals the secret of Platonism: the only way to isolate -to disconnect from the universal process of generation and corruption -the site of absolute standstill is the fixation upon the other's gaze as the immovable point in the picture. zurück

The similarity between this shot of Arbogast's face and the shot of Henry Fonda's face reflected in the cracked mirror in The Wrong Man is therefore fully justified: in both cases, the point-of-view is that of the Thing. zurück

Jean Narboni, "Visages d'Hitchcock", in Cahiers du cinema, hors-serie 8: Alfred Hitchcock, Paris 1980, p. 33. zurück

William Rothmann, The Murderous Gaze, Harvard: Harvard University Press 1982. zurück

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1977, p. 103. zurück

A film which was known to Lacan, as is proven by a passing reference to it in the Seminar on Transference (cf. Jacques Lacan, Le seminaire, livre VIII: Le transfert, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1991, p. 23). zurück

Cf. Raymond Dourgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, London: Faber and Faber 1974. zurück

Cf. Jacques Lacan, Le seminaire, livre VIII: Le transfert, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1991, p. 20-22. zurück