Project 4-4: Gendering the Gaze

Read the chapter by Laura Mulvey called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema on pps 381 – 389 of the course reader making notes.

Notes on the Gaze

Sturken and Cartwright (2009) define the in relation to visual arts as:

“the relationship of looking in which the subject is caught up in the dynamics of desire through trajectories of looking and being looked at among other people.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 442)

The gaze can be both motivated by the subjects desire for control over the object it sees, and the object can likewise capture and hold the look.

Pooke and Newall (2008) assert that in the field of art, gaze refers to the viewers engagement with the art object and is frequently suggestive of a power dynamic between the object and the spectator. The term Gaze is used prominently in film and gender studies.

Modern origins of the gaze are based on psychoanalytic theory and relates to visual and sexual attentions and the implications of gendered human perception that these contain. Gazing is considered central to sexual attraction and has both a positive and negative identification, for example, narcissistic (loving/productive) and nihilistic (hating/destructive.)  (Harris, 2006)

D’Alleva (2012) states:

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

A distinction is made between Gaze and gaze (lower case g): Gaze – the process of looking which constitutes a network of relationships, gaze – a specific instance of looking. Freud saw desire as crucial to the process of looking. Lacan saw the Gaze as one of the main manifestations of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis: the unconscious, repetition, transference and drive. For Lacan, the Gaze gives structure and stability to our fantasies of Self and Other. Looking at art is not a neutral process but one where the viewer is a desiring subject open to the captivation asserted by the work being viewed. The function of art is to trap the Gaze because the viewer is (falsely) put in the position of the eye.

Film theorists of the 1970s (such as Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz) used the theories of Freud and Lacan to posit that in cinema the Gaze of the spectator on the image was implicitly male and objectified women on screen. Lacan’s analysis of the Gaze (for example, the mirror-phase) form an important part of feminist discussions of how women are constructed as the object of a ‘male gaze’ in film and visual arts with a particular feminist interest being the relations between looking, imagery and power in society.

Notes on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ by Laura Mulvey

In ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Laura Mulvey drew on psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan to challenge patriarchal models of viewing. Hollywood cinema of the 1930s-50s was used to illustrate how pleasure in looking is split between the active/male protagonist/hero who possesses the Gaze and moves the action forward, and, the passive/female who is the object of the desire and the object of the Gaze.

Arguing that Hollywood cinema is geared toward male viewing pleasure, and related directly to the construction of the male psyche. This both reinforced patriarchal society and Mulvey used the psychoanalytical paradigms of scopophillia, voyeurism and narcissism:

Scopophillia – the pleasure in looking and being looked at (exhibitionism.) Pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. Active scopophillia implies a separation of erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen. Is a function of sexual instincts.

Voyeurism – the pleasure taken in looking while not being seen to be looking. This carries negative connotations of a powerful, even sadistic, position within the Gaze.

Narcissism – identification with the image seen – linked to construction of the ego. Demands identification of the ego with the object in screen through the spectators fascination and recognition of his like. Is a function of the ego libido.

Mulvey linked pleasure gained from the male gaze in three ways:

  1. Woman’s objectification in the gaze of the male characters and audience stimulates the pleasures of erotic fantasy.
  2. Identification with the male protagonist by male viewers links to the development of the ego – identified by Lacan as the mirror-phase: the stage which creates misrecognition in the child’s mind between the actual self and how he sees himself – the ego ideal.
  3. The male viewer, through the sadistic power of the male protagonist, is able to subdue the threat symbolised by the female’s lack of a penis – symbolic of castration. To avoid this anxiety the female figure is turned into a fetish/fetish object.

Each of these strategies places the female in a position in which she has no control or agency: women are there to be looked at and the watching men project their fantasies onto the females portrayed on screen. The on screen male is a man of action and command which mirrors the underlying assumptions of a phallocentric and patriarchal society. Patriarchal culture positions woman as image and man as bearer of the image.

Mulvey argued that the reason Hollywood cinema followed these conventions of gender roles (women as visual fetishes; spoken for, bearers of meaning, and, men as vigorous agents; speakers, makers of meaning) is because this is hard wired into the social psyche and thus unavoidable. When woman is referred to as the bearer of meaning this is a reference to the way a woman’s body is organised by Lacan’s concept of the signifier of difference – that is the penis she does not have marked by castration and the threat that she is. Her body, which is complete with beauty but damaged by phallic absence, is the fetish that makes the site of the lack – the difference that forms the possibility of meaning and on which language is built.

A common criticism of Mulvey’s paper is that the Gaze she discusses is strictly male (also white and heterosexual) and this view does more to fix identity than free it. However, this misses the point that the essay is a polemic in which the male Gaze is a strategic necessity in order for Mulvey to make the case that although Hollywood narrative cinema appeared to be innocent entertainment it is really an instrument of patriarchal ideology. Despite what they term the “intellectual problems” of some aspects of Mulvey’s work, Lapsley and Westlake (2006) believe that her theories made a difference beyond academia as she rendered visible what had been invisible: the violence within representation and the reproduction of patriarchy within mainstream cinema. She revealed and confronted the self interested and misogynist nature of representations of women by white, middle class heterosexual males and contributed to the transformation of gender based relations of domination.

Watch ‘Vertigo’ and make notes on how it stands up to Mulvey’s analysis.


Scottie, The main protagonist of Vertigo is obsessed: he falls in love with a woman who apparently dies and seeing another woman who resembles her cannot help himself but remake the second in the image of the first – with eventual tragic results. (Hitchcock, in typically sardonic fashion, described the film as a twist on the Hollywood staple ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again’ Sammader, 2012) Under scrutiny it is a preposterous story and a commercial flop on release, now however it is regarded as a classic, possibly Hitchcock’s best film and was voted greatest film ever made by the BFI in 2012. Whether intentional or not Scottie’s moulding of Judy into the vision of Madeline has parallels with Hitchcock’s sadistic treatment of actors and his own obsession with a certain type of leading lady, a fetishised cool blonde. It could also be read as an analogy of the Hollywood star system in which the stars (especially the women) are no more than property to the studios.

Themes of the film include desire and artificiality, subjectivity, female objectification and the male Gaze. Hitchcock was influenced by Freud and surrealism and draws on Freud’s theories of scopophillia. Stylistically the film is almost entirely shot from Scottie’s perspective with the audience becoming complicit in his voyeurism. Dreamy tracking shots are used in the sequences where he follows both Madeline and Judy, the camera moves with Scottie and reflect his snatched glimpses, wonderment and desire. The pastel colours of the films design give a overemphasised artificiality which add to the dreamlike quality. Occasionally our gaze is returned by Novak as Madeline/Judy – at these points we feel her accusing our voyeurism. Reflecting on Vertigo’s narrative, the entire film seems completely implausible, particularly why Madeline/Judy would allow herself to be first manipulated into Elster’s murderous scheme and then allow Scottie to change her appearance. The only logical explanation is that, as Mulvey argues, woman is presented as image and man as bearer of the look. This emphasises the inherent sexual imbalance in which the (active) determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure (passive) which is styled accordingly.

Mulvey has the following to say about Vertigo: the look is central to the plot – oscillating between voyeurism and fetishist fascination. This is typical of Hitchcock with the male hero (James Stewart/Scottie) seeing exactly what the audience sees, his role being to portray the contradictions and tensions experienced by the spectator. The subjective camera of Vertigo predominates with the narrative being almost entirely based around what Scottie sees or fails to see – his erotic obsession and subsequent despair is shown entirely from his point of view. Scottie’s voyeurism is as blatant as is his sadistic side – he follows, watches and falls in love with a perfect image of female beauty and mystery. In the second half of the film his obsessive involvement with image is demonstrated as he tries to reconstruct Judy as Madeline and force her to conform to every detail of his fetish: “Her exhibitionism, her masochism make her an ideal counterpart to Scottie’s active, sadistic voyeurism.” (Jones, 2010: 64) His erotic interest can only be sustained with her playing and replaying her part, through repetition he breaks her down and exposes her guilt – his curiosity wins through and she is punished.

“In Vertigo, erotic involvement with the look boomerangs: the spectator’s own fascination is revealed as illicit voyeurism as the narrative content enacts the processes and pleasures that he himself is exercising and enjoying.” (ibid)

While Scottie is caught within the symbolic order with all of the attributes of the patriarchal super ego, the spectator is lulled into false security and exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking: “Vertigo focuses on the implications of the active/looking, passive/looked at split in terms of sexual difference and the power of the male symbolic encapsulated in the hero.”

How does the portrayal of some contemporary black music in video match up to Mulvey’s insights?

Snoop Dogg feat Pharrell Drop It Like It’s Hot HD

Contemporary black music – particularly rap music – has a reputation for being a macho domain where image is paramount and for treating women as little more the objects. I do not profess to be an expert on this style of music and spent sometime looking through various music videos on YouTube before coming across this video: ‘Drop it like it’s hot’ by Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell from 2009. Snoop Dogg is an artist who has been around for years and fulfils many of the stereotypes of what makes a rapper – glamourous surroundings, expensive consumer goods and a sexualised view of women. The women in this video are literally featured to be no more the glamourous window dressing, fawning and fussing over the stars in the video Snoop Dogg and Pharrell. They are shown dancing with the two male musicians, twerking next to a Rolls Royce, stripping, pouring drinks for Snoop Dogg and dancing together in a scene that could represent a club setting. They represent a juvenile wish fulfilment and are entirely there for the scopophillic pleasure of the (supposed) male viewer. The video is so outlandish and offensive that I would be inclined to think it is a parody, however, there is no sense of irony contained in it. As a final aside – I note that most versions of this video have the lyrics edited to remove potentially offensive words. An interesting choice to keep the visual content intact while censoring the lyrics of the song which shows the perceived power of words over images.

Annotate  Manet’s  ‘Olympia’  in  terms  of  the  gaze  and  the  various  characters, within and without the image.


Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863) was considered scandalous and vulgar when first displayed, interestingly this has nothing to do with the model being nude but rather the unconventional subject depicted and her seemingly oppositional returned gaze. Rather than depicting an idealised subject based on history or myth as was the convention of nineteenth century painting, the model is a prostitute, and, most significantly, rather than complying with codes of humility and compliance her returned gaze is ambiguous and unsettling. Manet based the composition of the painting on Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and comparing the two paintings emphasise the differences and why ‘Olympia’ caused such controversy. Firstly the subject matter – Titian is depicting Venus, an ideal representation of the female form and sexuality while Manet has painted a courtesan, someone not normally presented in paintings. We can deduce ‘Olympia’ is a prostitute as this name was one often used for courtesans – the black cat shown at the bottom of the bed is a  symbol of prostitution. (As opposed to the dog shown in Titian’s painting which represents fidelity.) Both of the women in the picture are similarly undressed, reclining and holding one hand over their waist. Titian’s Venus is coy with her head cocked to one side. She has a look that could appear to be adoration or love, there is no sexual connotation to her pose and although she appears relaxed in her nakedness, the hand she holds over her genital area is appears to rest naturally rather than being held for any reasons of modesty. In ‘Olympia’ the model’s hand seems to be placed deliberately, again modesty is not the motivation here rather she is demonstrating control over her body. The position suggests that while her nakedness can be looked at for free, anything further will require payment.

The most striking aspect of Manet’s painting, as previously mentioned, is the way the model in ‘Olympia’ returns our gaze. Unlike Titian’s model her head is held high and points directly out of the painting – there can be no doubt that the subject of her gaze is the viewer. This is further emphasised by the way the black servant in the painting is ignored despite appearing to bring a gift of flowers – her stare seems to challenge the viewer. Given the typical audience at the time would have been white, middle/upper class, western male this surely would have made them feel uncomfortable when confronted by the reality of a depiction of a ‘type’ they would not have been used to seeing represented in panting. The viewer is forced to confront their scopophillia along with the attendant feelings of shame that are linked to this.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. New York: Taylor & Francis

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed Cambridge: Polity Press

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

pps. 381-390 Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

pps. 58-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Samadder, R. (2012) ‘My favourite Hitchcock: Vertigo’ The Guardian, 10th August 2012. Available At: [Accessed 10th October 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock. Dir. USA: Paramount Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Project 4-2: The Mirror Phase

Read the article by Jacques Lacan entitled The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I on pps 620 – 624 of Art in Theory 1900 – 2000 making notes.

Notes on the Mirror-Phase

Lacan’s notion of the Mirror-Phase (or stage) is derived from Freud’s theories of narcissism and studies of child psychology and development. It refers to the period in which the ego is formed in childhood.

Lacan reworked Freud’s developmental model the basis for this being their agreement that infants have no sense of self or identity between themselves and their mother – that is, between Self and Other. Like Freud, he proposed three stages of development from child to adult:

Freud – oral, anal, phallic.

Lacan – Real, Imaginary, Symbolic.

During the Real stage all of the babies needs are satisfied, there is no absence, loss or lack. Between 6-18 months the baby begins to distinguish between the body and everything else in the world. The idea of the ‘Other’ results from the realisation that it is separate from the mother. This creates anxiety and loss – the baby shifts from having needs to having demands which cannot be satisfied with objects. The baby has the mistaken sense of itself as a whole person when recognising their image in a mirror. This creates the ego and sense of self – the mirror stage is also the realm of the Imaginary. Our sense of Self is built by misidentifying with the mirror image – a perfect self with no insufficiency or ego ideal. Following the mirror stage when the baby has formulated a sense of otherness, they enter the Symbolic which is the realm of culture and language. As humans become speaking subjects they designate themselves by the ‘I’ that was discovered in the Imaginary. They must obey the laws and rules of language which Lacan terms the ‘law-of-the-father.’ A notion which links to Freud’s theories of Oedipus, Electra and castration complexes. (D’Alleva, 2012: 96-7)

The mirror-phase was also based on studies carried out by Henri Wallon in the 1930s which compared the reaction of young children on seeing their reflection with that of chimpanzees. The humans were fascinated while the chimpanzees were uninterested which led Wallon to conclude that the babies had recognized the image in the mirror as their actual selves. (Buchanan, 2010: 322)

Lacan proposed that between the ages of 6-18 months, by looking at their own mirror image, babies began to build their ego and become self aware. However, the infant mistakenly sees itself as independent and apart from others in the world despite lacking motor coordination and skills: they see both the ideal ‘I’ and ideal ego, they recognise their image as both ‘me’ and not ‘me’, both themselves and different – a split in recognition that forms both the basis of alienation and at the same time pushes them to grow. The mirror-phase offers both self-recognition coupled with misrecognition and self fragmentation – it is not about the mirror as a reflection of the self but about the mirror as the constitutional element in the construction of the self. (Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 101, 212, 449)

For Chandler the mirror-phase is the defining moment of the Imaginary – the private, psychic realm where the construction of the self is initiated by visual images reflected back by an other with whom we identify. We see our mirror image and this induces a strong, defined illusion of a coherent and self governing personal identity. This also marks the child’s emergence from a matriarchal state of nature to a patriarchal order of culture. (Chandler, 2008: 93)

Eagleton states that we both recognise and identify with our mirror reflection (it is part of ourselves) and also find it alien (not ourselves.) Therefore, the image the child sees in the mirror is an alienated one – a misrecognition that is a pleasing unity not experienced in their own body. Lacan sees the Imaginary as a realm of images where we make identifications but also misconceive and misrecognise ourselves through this very act. As a child grows they continue to make such imaginary identifications continuing to build their ego which Lacan sees as the narcissistic process whereby we bolster a fictive sense of selfhood by finding something in he world with which we can identify. (Eagleton, 1996: 142-3)

Lacan was associated with the Surrealist movement. Find two examples of Surrealist work that might have echoes of the mirror phase and annotate them to show how.

My selections here are from painters associated with surrealism who have both produced work that literally features a mirror and appear to draw inspiration from the notion of the mirror-phase.


Paul Delvaux: ‘The Mirror’ (1939)


A woman sits in a room facing a mirror, however, her apparent reflection does not represent the scene in front of the mirror – it shows a naked with an outdoor scene behind her. The woman in the foreground with her back to us seems to be of wealthy means – she is wearing an expensive looking gown, her seat is ornate and padded which echoes the ornate gilt frame of the mirror she is facing. Strangely, the wall paper in the room in which she is seated is peeling and the ceiling seems in a state of disrepair, the floor is also bare floorboards. We assume the figure in the mirror is a reflection of the seated woman because her pose is the same, however, her nakedness indicates this is an imagined view we are witnessing. A small section of the room, the bare floorboards and peeling wall paper can be seen in the mirror and behind this is an outdoor scene showing a row of trees, one tree standing alone and to the side, and buildings in the background. This again appears to be imagined because the scene covers what appears to be the back wall of the room.

One reading of this scene could be that the reflected image is the woman’s idealised or unconscious view of herself. If we do not take the poor condition of the room’s interior as literal this could represent her inner feelings towards the apparent trappings of her status in society – the dress she wears could also be a symbol of this so being naked could be either the freedom she longs for or the uninhibited way she views herself outside of the trappings of her life. Conversely, the decay of the room could represent the woman’s real life or mental state with the idealised reflection being her own incorrect perceptions. The lone tree in the background seems to be significant and could back up the notion of freedom or difference as it appears to be the same as the others in the row and yet stands apart. This could represent the woman – on the surface the same as anyone else, and yet underneath different and separate. The lack of clothing could merely be a metaphor for the masks of conformity that we use to comply with societal convention.



René Magritte: ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1936)

A woman is shown holding a large mirror over her torso – she appears to be naked. She is standing straight on, the mirror covers from the top of her legs to her head which is tilted down and to the side, her eyes are closed. The reflection in the mirror appears to be of the same woman because the style and colour of her hair and skin tone matches. Clearly this cannot be the case however, a fact that is driven home by the body in the reflection standing at a different angle and being a different perspective. The figure in the mirror is standing to the side with buttocks facing the viewer, one breast is visible with the arms held underneath across the chest.

One reading of this image is that the woman is using the mirror to protect her modesty, which could be backed up by the coy cocking of her head to one side. What we see in the reflection is our projection of what we imagine beneath, a fantasy extended by the more provocative posing. The closed eyes could also suggest that we are witnessing the imagined self perception of the woman represented as a dream state. This could either be a projection of her inner feelings of sensuality, an idealised image of herself,  regret at feeling repressed (backed up by covering herself with the mirror) or, her response to objectification. Potentially however, the reflection is not a manifestation of the woman holding the mirror’s subconscious at all, but, the reflected imaginings of the (male?) viewer. The reflection could be the fulfilment of the viewers wish that the woman holding the mirror would be less repressed and more sexually confident or the projection of masculine fantasies of female sexualisation – the reflection of the woman is provocative (brazenly so?) despite evidence that the woman holding the mirror (reality?) is not like this.

It is interesting that both artists here have chosen to represent female nudity in their paintings – as men do they have the right to explore notions of the female sexual subconscious? It is true that the female nude is an established artistic convention but to extend this objectification to female inner thoughts seems to be somewhat presumptuous.

Find two examples of the way the contemporary  media  make  use  of  Lacan’s ideas and show how.

Willamson (1995) makes some interesting observations about Lacan’s notion if the mirror-phase and how this relates to advertising. She states that advertisements alienate our identity in constituting us as one of the objects in an exchange that we ourselves must make, thereby appropriating form us an image which gives us back our own ‘value’. Advertisements dangle before us an image of an Other; but invite us to be the Same. This capitalizes on our regressive tendency toward the Ego-ideal.

I have chosen two advertisements which deal with body image in very different ways:


This advertisement for Protein World weight loss powder caused controversy because of its depiction of what critics saw as an unrealistic and potentially damaging projection of unrealistic body image. The advert invites the viewer to identify recognise the representation of the ideal physique, slim and toned,  as something attainable through the use of the advertised weight loss product. The further connotation is that this type of physique is the only body type that is acceptable for wearing beach wear, anything else being inferior. What we recognise is a reflection of our imperfections rather than the ideal which is represented – the aim being that we use the advertised product as a way of achieving this. Although complaints to the UK advertising watchdog deemed that the advert did not violate advertising guidelines it was met with much criticism in both the press and more directly by members of the public with billboards being vandalised on the London underground and in New York.


This still from an advert to promote awareness of eating disorders (available at: is a powerful take on how the self can be distorted in a negative way. The ad depicts a teenage girl in her underwear looking at herself in the mirror. She is of typical body shape and by no means overweight yet focusses on what she her believes to be imperfections, at one point pulling at her side which is more like skin than fat. At the end of the advert, the camera pulls back and shows a painfully thin girl from the back. We are confronted with the fact that the images we have been viewing are the girl’s perception of herself rather than reality – the final shot shown here of the thin and normal girl together powerfully demonstrates how our view of self can be perverted into a negative and destructive one rather than ideal.


I have made a conscious effort here to gain the information I need for the project rather than getting obsessed with too much detail. For example, looking at the mirror-phase could easily open up into something much broader…self, other, ego, id, superego, the gaze etc. etc. Some of this I note are topics to be studied in further exercises.

I started doing quite a bit of reading about surrealism before also stopping myself and trying the approach of looking at works and making selections based on what seemed to fit the topic of the mirror-phase. This proved more difficult than I thought as the general art history books I own did not really have what I wanted and a google image search resulted in a great deal of results – many of which where not relevant. I always look at present and past student blogs when working on a project, and on this occasion found the images I eventually chose via former UVC student Keith Greenough: I did have a number of other images that I considered including but kept coming back to these as they seemed to encapsulate what I understood by the mirror-phase. I have asked for some support from art history students via the OCA student forum with recommendations of websites and books they use for general art history research. The advise gained here will hopefully help with subsequent projects.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Eagleton, T. (1996) Literary theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Lacan, J. ‘The mirror-phase as formative of the function of the I’ pps. 620-624 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Murray, C. (ed.) (2002) Key writers on art: The twentieth century. New York: Taylor & Francis

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

De Botton, A. (2016) PSYCHOTHERAPY – Jacques Lacan.  Available at: [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sweney, M. (2016) ‘Protein world’s “beach body ready” ads do not objectify women, says watchdog’ In: The Guardian Available at: [Accessed on 10 September 2016]

Williamson, J. (1995) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.


Project 4-1: Freud, Oedipus and Castration

Read, and make notes on, the essay by Freud The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex.

Buchanan (2010) argues that the Oedipus complex is the central organizing myth of psychoanalysis. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1913), Freud, discussed how his clinical experience led to the conclusion that experience as a child had a major determination on the adult lives of his more neurotic patients.

Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex originated from his self analysis of his own dreams – his jealousy of his father and affection for his mother reminded him of the Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’. In the play, Oedipus, not knowing the identity of either, kills his father and marries his mother. On finding out the truth he blinds himself. Freud concluded that the themes of ‘Oedipus Rex’ continued to resonate after 2500 years because of their universality and that it also encapsulated childhood development:

“Psychoanalysis holds that all children develop a love attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, thus, the little boy loves his mother and wants to usurp his father.” (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Macey (2000) agrees that the Oedipus complex is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis and a way of describing the child’s sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. It assumes a primal state where only maleness exists – a girl does not have a penis due to castration, which is symbolised by the blinding of Oedipus, a girl may believe she has been castrated by a jealous mother who resents her sexual feelings toward her father. Conversely, a boy fears castration by a jealous father. For a boy, the dissolution of the Oedipus complex occurs when this truth is accepted and he begins to identify with his father. For a girl, the Oedipus complex begins to dissolve when her desire to regain the penis she has lost is replaced by the desire to have a baby.

Pooke and Newall (2008) state that a child enters the Oedipal phase at around 5/6 years old when the child’s relationship with their parents becomes the focus of their sexual development. Boys recognise their sexual anatomy matches their fathers, but their mother does not have a penis. This results in anxiety that desire for the mother will result in castration by the father as well as triggering the urge to kill the father who they now see as a rival and a threat. On noticing genital difference, girls perceive they have already been castrated which leads to the acceptance of passive sexual role.

Freud recognises that the two natures of masculine and feminine are present within each individual, proposing that everyone is inherently bisexual. Failure to fulfil the early stages of sexual development lead to the emergence of neuroses: this can be inhibited behaviour patterns or regression to an earlier stage of sexual development with aspects of sexual identity incompletely developed, for example, fetishism or narcissism.

Minsky (1995) adds that castration anxiety is compounded by parental threats to remove the penis in relation to the young child’s masturbation.

Freud defended reactions against his ideas of the Oedipus complex as being proof of their validity: he believed the myth would not provoke such outbursts if it did not reveal an inner truth. (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Look at Edvard Munch’s Ashes (1894) and make notes as to how Freud’s ideas help you to understand this image.


Edvard Munch: Ashes (1894)

In ‘Ashes’ (1894) Munch depicts two characters in a woodland setting. An apparently male figure is shown in the bottom left, his body hunched over, hand on top of his head. He is clearly in some form of distress or perhaps regret, his clothes and hair are almost entirely black which echoes his mood. Behind him, a female figure is standing upright, both hands on her head, her expression is difficult to read but it appears to suggest some sort of drama. Her appearance is dishevelled – her red hair is wild and flowing, her dress is unbuttoned revealing a red undergarment – a flash of colour in the otherwise sombre palette of the rest of the painting.

If we read the painting on a literal level, it would seem to depict a sexual encounter between the two characters. The drama and seeming regretful melancholy of the scene would suggest this has not been a happy occurrence – the liaison may have been illicit (a reference to Oedipus?) and what we are seeing is the aftermath of regret, or, the advances of the female character have been spurned by the man. The dynamic pose of the woman and use of red to signify passion seems to contrast starkly with the repressed pose of the man.

The atmosphere of the painting suggests either heightened reality or a dream state , perhaps the male character’s inner thoughts, dreams or memories. His placement in the bottom left seems significant as it separates him from the background which would align with this view. If we assume that the picture represents the symbolic rather than literal a number of conclusions can be reached: this is the memory of an illicit liaison, regret for being unable to consummate a sexual encounter, recognition of the male characters sexual repression which could also be read as confusion over sexuality. All of these readings would fit with Freudian concepts of unresolved sexual development in childhood leading to neuroses in the adult.

Once you know about Munch’s unremittingly bleak biography it is hard to separate this from his work. Yet, the title of the painting ‘Ashes’ would suggest the subject of the painting is death. “Illness, madness and death were the dark angels who watched over my cradle and accompanied me throughout my life” he wrote. (Hudson, 2012) Both his mother and elder sister died from tuberculosis, he said the image of his father praying for days on end after the death of his mother, kneeling in anguish, left him terrified at five years old. His younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness so it could be her hysteria that is being depicted here.

Munch’s failed relationship with Tulla Larsen, a beautiful, independently wealthy but also powerful and controlling woman, could also be an influence – the male character being Munch himself and the woman Tulla. Unable to commit to Tulla (Munch believed he was unfit to father children and that solitude fuelled his art) their on-off relationship eventually came to an end when she married one of Munch’s younger colleagues. Ironically, Munch felt betrayed by this and is said to have brooded for years about it. With this knowledge ‘Ashes’ can be read as a portrait of both Munch’s regret about not being able to fulfil Tulla’s passionate needs, his own sexual repression (as opposed to Tulla’s passion) and his fear of a strong female partner.

Castration anxiety  may  help  to  explain  the  images  featuring  a  dominatrix or simply a large woman and a small man. Seaside postcards of the so-called humorous variety often feature this sort of image. Find two or three images of this or some other genre that might be explained in part at least by Freud and by annotation show how.

Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh


Freud would have had a lot to say about Richard Billingham, his childhood and his family situation. He would have had even more to say about his ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ photographic series: snapshot images of his disfunctional family intended to be the basis for paintings for Billingham’s degree course. The pictures were never intended for publication but eventually became both a critical and commercial success. They show his highly unconventional home life: his father Ray, a chronic alcoholic, fuelled by the home brew a neighbour supplied, drinking then sleeping – unable to tell if it is day or night. His mother Liz: a large woman with arms covered in tattoos, obsessed with animals – her flat full of pets and assorted brightly coloured kitsch items, her own ‘psychological space’ that was ‘carnivalesque’ and decorative. (BBC)

In Billingham’s own words:

“I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn’t know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that’s how I first started taking photographs.” (BBC)

And from the back of the book jacket of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’:

“This book is about my family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.

My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.

My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”

In the chosen picture, Liz is shown side on to the right of the frame, side on and facing Ray who is seated. Her fist is clenched and she is clearly unhappy at Ray, so much so that it appears the scene could burst into a physical attack. Stylistically, Liz is out of focus and overexposed due to the use of flash and being closer to the camera. This emphasises her angered state and the heightened nature of the scene. Ray is sitting low in the frame emphasising how small and weak he is in comparison to Liz. He is looking away apparently impassive, who knows what transgression has prompted the confrontation? Ray’s lack of response is pitiful and sums up his relationship to both Liz and life in general.

Charlotte Cotton, in her essay RAL, sees as ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ as a way Billingham has used creativity to reconcile himself with his chaotic and dysfunctional childhood. It seems to me that propositions such as this are presented by critics and commentators who cannot comprehend a family life that was merely a reality for Billingham. Despite the conflict presented in the picture here, there is also a theme of love and acceptance that runs throughout the series – my hunch is that this is how Billingham truly felt about his family.

Anders Petersen: Café Lehmitz (1967-1970)


This image by Anders Petersen is from a series of photographs of the regulars at a bar in Hamburg, Café Lehmitz, he frequented in the late 1960s. A man, shirt off and eyes closed, is held in an embrace by an older woman. His eyes are closed as his head rests on her neck, her mouth is wide open, laughing which strongly contrasts with his seeming serenity. We know nothing of the relationship between these two, although the woman appears older than the man. The pose suggests a mother/son rather than sexual relationship – it is possible that the woman is comforting the man somehow? Her wide open mouth gives the image a sinister edge however – this is not something the man would see having succumbed to her embrace. It is almost as if the look by the woman is some sort of celebration of finally getting the man into her clutches – where he sees a warm, motherly act of tenderness she has different motives and has used this as a way of drawing him in.


My first encounter with Freud was with the second project in the course and I distinctly remember feeling shock at the language and subject matter of the essay. I also failed to see how a paper over a hundred years old was anything other than of historical interest – I certainly did not see how this was relevant to the study of visual culture. Approaching this project however, I felt  much more comfortable tackling Freud and engaging with the notion of the Oedipus complex (despite the much more shocking connotations this has as opposed to fetishism.) Maybe all of this reading is starting to sink in?


BBC (N.D.) Photography – genius of photography – gallery – Richard Billingham available at: [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Cotton, C. (2014) RAL. in Richard, B. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Freud S. (1924) ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ pps. 313-322 Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Hudson, M. (2012) Edvard munch: Images from the depths of the soul In: The Telegraph (28th June 2012) available at: [Accessed 29 August 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Project 2-3: The Society of the Spectacle

This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.

Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:

“By Weltanshaunng, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”

The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.

It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.

In paragraph 1 Debord states:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.

The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.

In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:

“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”

The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’?

This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is  a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.

Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.

Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.

Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.

My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:

  • The spectacle is everywhere.
  • We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
  • The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
  • We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
  • Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.

The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.

Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.

Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.

John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:

-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.

-The driving out of meaning in politics.

-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.

-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”

The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.

Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.

Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.

“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.

I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.

The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.

Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies  were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.

The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.

The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.

Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?

Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.

Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.

John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.


I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.

Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum

Key figures for further research:

Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (, Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Curtis, A. (2014) Oh Dear segment on Charlie Brooker’s 2014wipe. BBC. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Freud, S. A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933) publ. Hogarth Press. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Harris, J. (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian 30th March 2012 Available online [accessed August 2015]

Hussey, A. (2001) Situation Abnormal: the suicide of Guy Debord. The Guardian 28th July 2001 Available online [accessed August 2015]

Kaplan, R. L. (2012) Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: The contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sage. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. The Guardian 14th November 2013. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walker, B. (2012) The Big ideas podcast: Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ The Guardian 28th March 2012. Available online [accessed August 2015]

Project 1-2: Fetishising the Object of Your Eye

This project asks us to read articles by Sigmund Freud, ‘Fetishism’, and Otto Fenichel, ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’, before responding to a number of questions about the way we formalise looking and the customs, manners and taboos associated with this. The articles are written from a psychoanalytical viewpoint and are quite alien in language and tone to anything I have read before and am used to reading. Initially I felt adverse to the suggestions in both articles as the ideas they contained are not ones I particularly agree with. For example, although Freud’s idea of castration fear and the Oedipus complex are notions I am familiar with (albeit from an absorbed rather than studied perspective) they are not concepts I have given much thought to as my initial was that they seem quite ridiculous. To try and counteract my initial rejection of the articles I decided to do some background reading and allow myself some ‘soak time’ to take in the ideas presented.

Unlike the previous project, the questions posed for this exercise are not directly related to the text – I kept coming back to the articles in the hope that they would illuminate me on the answers needed but found they did not. I came to the conclusion that the point of the project is to prime my own thoughts about looking and that I should respond in a personal way using the articles as background. The key hint to this is a note on how to approach the texts, note…questions that arise in your mind as you are reading. You may not find the answer to these questions for some time, if ever, but the act of asking them and noting them down is vital to your eventual understanding.” It seems to be that thinking about how we look and see (and understand) is key to understanding visual culture – not just for the course but for always.

 How does what you have read help your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

 Likening a gallery visit to a ritual is both appropriate to the course and accurate. In my experience there is almost always a feeling of reverence when visiting a gallery, the viewers are often solemn and serious viewing the work in silence, the experience can be likened to being in church or a library. Most visitors tend to follow the path that the work is set out and view the pieces in order. Often (I am certainly guilty of this) more time is given to reading accompanying text rather than looking at the work itself. I often feel tension when looking at a piece alongside someone else – are you invading their space? What do they think of you? Are they judging your knowledge or appreciation of the work? How long should you remain in front of the artwork before moving? The mere act of placing artwork or an object into a gallery setting elevates its status, although it may not be obvious as to whether the work is deserving or not.

Art is often collected and deemed to be of great value. Seeing artwork in a gallery setting is quite different to looking in a book or online, the object itself can have an effect on the viewer. Also, appreciation of art needs time and experience; the more art is studied the more able the student is to appreciate what they are looking at – I know this to be true from personal experience.

Thinking about an individuals motivation for viewing art and visiting a gallery led me to consider how this related to Freud’s idea of a fetish. For Freud, a fetish is deeply tied to sexual satisfaction which seems to me a little extreme, however, by thinking more along the lines of deriving pleasure from looking the idea begins to make more sense. If we take as true the notion that art appreciation increases the more art we look at then it would follow that we gain pleasure from this increased knowledge.

 Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

 For Fenichel, staring at someone is a sadistic act. He uses the examples of a magician hypnotising through a look and a snake fixing an animal in its gaze before devouring it as well as citing the idea that when we look closely at something we “devour” it with our eyes. He states that the eye plays a double part: actively sadistic – the person who looks putting a spell on the other, and, passively receptive – the person who looks back is fascinated by what they see. He sees the fixed gaze or stare as being linked to libidinal looking and sexual fore pleasure in adults.

As I read the Fenichel article I thought about ideas such as –

  • Love at first sight (‘their eyes met across the room’, has connotations of being welcome and mutual.)
  • Lecherous behaviour – for example the dirty old man deriving pleasure by looking at young girls (unwelcome, invasive.)
  • Eyes being the window to the soul – the idea that some inner truth can be gleaned through looking directly into someone’s eyes.
  • Voyeurism – which has connotations of deriving pleasure from looking and not being seen by the person you are looking at, more acceptably could be termed ‘people watching’ where others behaviour is observed.

I also noted the question ‘is all looking really sexual’ to which my initial reaction would be no unless you substitute sexual for pleasure.

The articles do not consider the idea of exhibitionism, that is that people actively want to be seen. A number of examples of this common in modern life would be –

  • Fashion, that is wearing clothes that give clues to your inner being or deliberately wearing provocative or revealing attire to attract attention.
  • Tattoos – which have become socially acceptable, even welcome in modern times and are often shown off for all to see. Also, piercings.
  • Sharing photographs – social media makes this phenomenon commonplace and allows us to show our ‘friends’ and the wider world what we are doing at all times no matter how banal.

Another thought I was struck by that confirms the idea that looking can be unwelcome and even dangerous is the idea that conflict can result from looking at someone ‘the wrong way.’ Often there can be talk of someone being looked ‘up and down’ and when referred to suggests an act of aggression or judgement.

Thinking about this question led me to remember Steve McQueen’s 2011 ‘Shame.’ The film’s main protagonist Brandon is a sex addict and the way looking with libidinal intent is explored throughout the film. One of my favourite scenes takes place on a subway train, there is no dialogue but we watch as Brandon’s eyes meet with an attractive female stranger across the carriage. At first his gaze is returned and we sense a feeling of flattery from the woman, their look is maintained and you can sense she is enjoying the attention and harmless flirtation. Things change however when she realises that Brandon has serious intentions due to his unwillingness to unlock his gaze, his expression is one of intent. She turns away and leaves the carriage, she seems shamed by her temptation, we see her wedding ring as she holds the trains rail waiting for it to stop at the next station. At the very end of the film we see the same woman again on the train, this time she is the one initiating eye contact with Brandon, the roles are reversed and it is noticeable that she is not wearing her wedding ring.

 Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for  some  people’s  need  to avidly watch television?

 I am not sure ‘avidly watch’ is an accurate description of how most people watch television. It can often be a passive activity, ‘veg out in front of the telly’ is a common phrase. An important consideration is shared experience, thoughts about watching the same programmes can be recounted with friends and colleagues and gives something to talk about. The most popular (in terms of number of viewers) television programmes in the UK remain soap operas which are broadly heightened, recognisable scenarios which suggests the majority of people are looking for something they can identify with in the programmes they watch. Soaps also rely on the familiar and established, long running characters which could mean that viewers become invested in what is happening due to the time (sometimes years) they have spent regularly viewing. This would again suggest a passive approach. The increase in reality TV is also significant as it is now well established that programme makers choose characters to be involved based on how they think they will interact (or more importantly become at odds with each other and cause conflict.) The attraction becomes witnessing extreme behaviour from the safety of the sofa (see also Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle)

 What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others’? (An example might be a city-dweller who collects landscape paintings  to ‘replace’ real countryside.)

 The example given about a city dweller replacing the real countryside with a landscape painting is not one I readily recognise, in fact, the whole notion of a fetish being the replacement for something that is missing is not one that I agree with. When researching ‘fetish’ I came across the Marxist idea of ‘commodity fetish’ and this immediately struck more of a chord with me than the psychoanalytical definitions I had been reading about up until then. Marx believed that there is a magical power in inanimate objects and their fetishisation explains the allure of money, property and ownership under capitalism. By extension everything, including sexuality can be commodified – in fact, the lure of the erotic is often used to sell items – fetishised images of what is desirable. I find it interesting that although Marx and Freud were writing at similar times it is Marx’s ideas which resonate with me rather than Freud’s. Perhaps this is because in the modern capitalist age we now live Marx’s concept of fetishisation of commodities seems more relevant than ever, or maybe it is because this is a more easily accessible theory rather than Freud’s, particularly because Freud’s Fetish theory is from a purely male point of view.

In the modern world the term fetish is closely associated with sexual activity, for example rubber and leather fetishes. Interestingly, Freud mentions fetishes for feet and shoes which I am sure a great number of people would mention as typical fetishes if asked. It seems to me that collecting objects is a modern fetish that is both tied to Freud and Marx, the objects we collect provide status (we show them off) as well as being a form of exhibitionism. Certainly I am guilty of trying to acquire large collections – a recent, relevant example would be buying books for this course, I actively had to stop myself from purchasing more, I was confusing completing coursework with simply buying books.

 Why are people often so keen to display wedding photos or family portraits?

 Wedding and family photographs represent us at our best and happiest – I would imagine the main motivation for displaying them in our homes is to show ourselves off to visitors. This would be a form of exhibitionism that even the most reserved people could indulge in. Nowadays it is more likely that people would predominately use social networking such as Facebook to share images of themselves and what they are up to. Sometimes it seems to me that people are more concerned with their virtual rather than real life because of the amount of time they spend taking photographs and videos rather than living in the moment. It seems that social affirmation is a major motivating factor for a large amount of people.

Photography is also deeply linked with memory, remembering an important, happy time such as a wedding or our families in the idealised presentation of a professional studio photograph is probably a major motivating factor. I am reminded of Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’ which in part is a meditation on photography and loss, much of the piece is about Barthes trying to find the ‘essence’ of his recently passed mother through photographs he has of her. He discovers that finding a satisfactory image is elusive except for one particular picture taken when she was a young woman, the Winter Garden photograph.


 Unlike the first project, I find myself more confused and less sure of the responses I have given here. Because the questions posed do not directly relate to the articles I have found it difficult to find a way in to the project. My approach of doing further reading has furthered my personal knowledge (particularly in regard to Freud’s biography) but did not give me that eureka moment when everything came into focus. I know that some of the answers (or at least the catalysts for them) will be found on my book shelf but I realised that finding them at this point would take a great deal of time, which being a precious resource, led me to decide that I needed to put my thoughts down and move on. When I started making personal responses to the questions I found the writing flowed more freely, on reflection though I should have trusted my instincts more and jotted down bullet points in response to the  questions posed. In short, I would approach this project quite differently if I was able to do it again from a blank perspective.

It seems to me that this exercise being placed so early in the course is no accident. The ideas presented are quite alien and require a shift out of our comfort zones to confront. This has forced me to reflect and engage on my study methods more and how to balance what we are told to read with further personal study and my own preconceived knowledge and ideas.

 Keywords and concepts for research:

 Scoptophilic, libidinal, Ego/non ego, fetish, vicissitude, scotomized, somnambulism, myopia, somatic.

Further research:

 Otto Fenichel, Sigmund Freud, phenomenology, Martin Heidegger (‘Being and Time’), Edmund Hursel, Satre (Being and Nothingness), De Beauvoir, Derrida.


 Barthes, R. (2009) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

 pp.324-326: ‘Fetishism’ Sigmund Freud

 pp.327-329: ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’ Otto Fenichel

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London:  Penguin.

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Polity Press

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.