Contemporary psychoanalytic film theory is primarily concerned with spec-tatorship, investigating how the cinema positions us as subjects. According to such theory, the cinema recreates many of the conditions in which we first recognized ourselves as individual, unified persons. As children looking at a mirror, we discover a unified image of our bodies. This recognition allows us to constitute an "I," an ego that can both be a position for perceiving others (a "subject") and an "object" for others to see. By identifying with the whole image seen in the mirror, we gain a sense of wholeness and mastery over the body. The cinema relies on this early developmental experience and restages it through its emphasis on perspectival visual imagery. Without this positioning, it is impossible for spectators to make sense of the imagery they see. This positioning is not purely cognitive, according to theorists. To lure us into subject positions, films must offer us the emotional experience of pleasure.
What pleasure does the cinema offer? Why do we go to the movies? When Christian Metz investigates these questions in The Imaginary Signifier,2 he establishes a framework for poststructuralist psychoanalytic investigation into the cinema. Metz locates the Freudian mechanism of identification at the center of the spectator's pleasure. Metz argues that the cinema first offers the appeal of primary identification, of identifying with the camera. This fundamental building block of the cinema allows us to become immersed in the diegetic world as if it were real. Film can only offer audiovisual representations of a world, not the world itself. The cinematic signifier necessarily reminds us of its lack because the depicted object is absent. Identifying with the camera gives these representations a sense of presence, which gives film its reality effect. The film promises a cohesive experience for those who occupy the subject position, and this substitution provides temporary satisfaction for our desire for wholeness. By restaging the process of our earliest identifications with images (the Lacanian mirror stage), film asks us temporarily to reconstitute our identities by taking up the pleasurable, cohesive, all-seeing position offered to us by the film.
This is not the only pleasure that the cinema yields, Metz argues. Film also gives us the possibility of identifying with onscreen characters, which Metz labels "secondary identification" (because it occurs after the spectator's "primary identification" with the camera). Laura Mulvey3 emphasizes the way that these two identifications frequently coincide to give subject positioning in the Hollywood cinema a particular ideological force. Mulvey notes that the two "looks" of the cinema (the camera's and the character's) frequently join forces to ally us with certain characters, paralleling our desires with theirs. She emphasizes how the ideological mechanism of the Hollywood cinema positions spectators with active males looking at passive "to-be-looked-at" females. Hollywood offers the pleasures of voyeurism (particularly looking at women) and of fetishistic scopophilia (allying our gaze with the male gaze). According to Mulvey, one cannot isolate the narrative structures of classical cinema from their history of ideological usage, making the desire for Hollywood pleasures complicit in structures of domination.
Importing a Freudian vocabulary, Metz and Mulvey set the terms for the discussion of film spectatorship - identification, mirror stage, displacement, condensation, fetishism, scopophilia, narcissism, and voyeurism - thus laying the groundwork for future applications of psychoanalytic theory. Of course Metz and Mulvey did not originate these terms; they borrowed them from Lacan and Freud. Their innovation lies in the application of these existing Freudian and Lacanian concepts to the cinema. Metz and Mulvey do not, however, significantly nuance or enhance the basic concepts that they borrow from Freud. When they discuss voyeurism or fetishism, they use the terms in their Freudian sense. The act of applying these terms to the cinema did not fundamentally alter their meaning. The interchange between Metz and the psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan is one-way: Freud enriches our understanding of the cinema without the cinema significantly changing the Freudian system.4 I therefore focus on the original concepts that Metz relies on in discussing cinematic pleasure. By going to the original source of these conceptions, I hope to reveal the assumptions about emotion that Metz and psychoanalytic film theorists borrow when they borrow their terms for analysis.
The first problem with drawing on Freud to explain cinematic emotions is straightforward. Psychologists generally agree that Freud's writings do not contain a well-developed theory of the emotions. Freud provided a comprehensive theory of the instincts and sexuality, but there is no correspondingly rigorous body of Freudian theory dealing with emotion,5 creating an absence that Jerome Wakefield calls "the Achilles heel of theoretical psychoanalysis."6 As the founding figure for psychoanalysis, Freud helped set the agenda that would guide the field for decades. By situating emotion as a secondary factor in explaining human behavior, Freud actually prevented emotion from becoming a central object of study for psychology.
To better understand Freud's neglect of the emotions, I revisit his intellectual project, examining how his initial neurologicallybased approach forged central assumptions that would become foundational for his later theories. I situate Freud's writing as a lifelong attempt to assert the centrality of instincts as the key to understanding human behavior. I argue that, for Freud, the emotions7 were a symptom of the more important instinctual system. If our desiderata call for an approach rooted in a coherent theory of emotion, psychologists would generally agree that Freud would make a poor choice.
Was this article helpful?