Due in large part to the impact of Mulvey's essay, psychoanalytic film theory grew so popular in the 1980s that it became identified, especially in the minds of its detractors, with film theory as such. In the 1990s, however, psychoanalytic film theory almost ceased to be practiced and was reduced to being an idea to refute in the process of introducing another way of thinking about film. Its demise led to a general retreat from theory to empirical research within the film studies field. But psychoanalytic film theory did not completely die out. Acknowledging twenty years of critiques of psychoanalytic film theory focused on spectator identification, a new manifestation of psychoanalytic film theory developed through an act of self-criticism. In Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (1994), Joan Copjec completely revolutionized psychoanalytic film theory. Copjec pointed out that psychoanalytic film theory had based itself on a radical misunderstanding of Lacan's concept of the gaze, which he does not develop in his essay on the mirror stage but in a later seminar translated as The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1978). The gaze, as Copjec explains it, is not on the side of the looking subject; it is an objective gaze, a point on—or, rather, absent from—the film screen. Rather than being the spectator's look of (illusory and deceptive) mastery, it is the point in the film image where this mastery fails. Instead of reducing the film screen to the mirror in which spectators can identify themselves, Copjec understands the screen as the site of the gaze, which is the object motivating the spectator's desire.
Psychoanalytic film theory had been too eager to think in terms of spectator identification and thus forgot about the role of spectator desire. According to psycho-analysis, desire is triggered by a missing object—an absence. Though the camera has the effect of rendering everything it photographs visible, it cannot create a field of unlimited visibility. Though films may work to dis-guise the limits of visibility, these limits are actually necessary for engaging the spectator's desire. The spectator desires to see a film only if it remains absent from the field of vision. It is this absence, not the illusion of gaining visual omnipotence, that draws the spectator into the events on the screen. The spectator thus seeks an object in the filmic image that remains irreducible to that image and irretrievable there. The encounter with this absence is traumatic for the spectator, shattering the ego and dislodging the spectator from her or his position of illusory safety. As films often make us aware, we as spectators are not separate from the screen but present there as an absence. When films push us toward the recognition of this unconscious involvement, we confront the public elaboration of our unconscious desire.
Though there is an implicit political valence to this turn in psychoanalytic film theory, it breaks from previous versions by refusing to place psychoanalytic insights in the service of a pre-formulated political program. Instead, Copjec's psychoanalytic film theory takes unconscious desire—the founding idea of psychoanalysis—as its starting point for understanding the cinema. In this sense, there is a homology between the emergence of Lynch's filmmaking and this innovation in psychoanalytic film theory. Both focus on the role of unconscious desire in film rather than on the process of identification. It is not coincidental that film theorists such as Slavoj Žižek, following in Copjec's wake, have turned their attention to the films of David Lynch.
With her revision of the traditional understanding of the gaze, Copjec authored a revolution in psychoanalytic film theory. It now becomes clear that the link between psychoanalysis and the cinema is even tighter than it initially seemed. No longer do we need to use psycho-analysis exclusively to help us decode cinematic manipulation and ideological control. Instead, psychoanalysis and cinema become locatable as part of a shared project that emerges out of a recognition of the power of the unconscious. Both psychoanalysis and cinema, in their best manifestations, represent attempts to embrace the trauma that constitutes us as subjects. In doing so, one discovers that this trauma is at once the source of our enjoyment as well. Psychoanalytic film theory can now look at films in terms of the way in which they relate to the gaze and thereby recognize how they mobilize spectators' desires and appeal to their fantasies. This allows psychoanalytic film theory to finally arrive at the fundamental questions that the cinema poses for us as individual subjects and for culture at large.
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