More than Meets the Eye: Problematizing Identity and the Gaze of the Other

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Joan Copjec’s essay, “The Orthospychic Subject” explores the ways in which Foucault and Lacan differ in regard to the gaze, apparatus, and the subject in addition to addressing many common misconceptions about film theory and psychoanalysis. One such difference lies in the construction of “I” in relation to the “Other.” According to film theory, there is the “impression of reality” in which the subject believes they are being accurately represented on screen and are therefore satisfied with the depiction of their “real” selves (page 292.) Lacanian theory pushes back on this idea, accounting for the ambiguity of the image and spectator relationship. This imaginary relation is manifested in the idea that “the subject reconceptualizes as its own concepts already constructed by the Other,” (page 292.) In this way, the self is defined through the gaze of the Other. Yet Lacan would argue that one can never truly understand another person, therefore we can never truly understand ourselves. To remedy this brush with the indescribable real, we try to derive meaning through these constructions of representation.

Who is the Other in cinema, and more specifically, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona? Bergman himself is a viable option. As director, he constructs the concepts of meaning in the film that the spectator perceives. The most salient example of Bergman’s power as manipulator of meaning is his use of montage. The opening sequence includes images of film, an old cartoon, a spider, the bloodletting of a lamb, and a nail being pounded into a hand in rapid succession. The simultaneous fragmentation and unification of these images disorient the viewer in their attempt to relate them to one another. Bergman relies on the Kuleshov Effect, through which the spectator attempts to make sense of the relationships and concepts inside and outside of the world of the film.

While her existence is suspect, the Other is also manifested in Elisabet. Alma tries in vain, through her ubiquitous traversal through the symbolic and excessive language, to reach the silent Elisabet. We see this in the following exchange:

Alma: Is it really important not to lie, to speak so that everything rings true? Can one live without lying and quibbling and making excuses? Isn’t it better to be lazy and lax and deceitful? Perhaps you even improve by staying as you are.

Elisabet: (No response)

Alma: My words mean nothing to you. People like you can’t be reached. I wonder whether your madness isn’t the worst kind. You act healthy, act it so well that everyone believes you–everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are.

As Alma unloads her innermost secrets and desires, she feels as though her identity is contingent upon Elisabet’s validation as the Other. She later calls herself “rotten” and attempts to separate herself from Elisabet. Yet the validation she seeks is unattainable. In this way, the Other is as illusory as meaning itself.