Peeping Tom and the Auditory Real

The camera and the filmic medium at large have a propensity to trouble the three orders – symbolic, imaginary, Real – defined by Lacan. The camera hovers between symbolic and imaginary, at once reproducing images outside of language and creating its own language in so doing, as well as relying to a large degree upon traditional spoken or written language to supplement its imaginary creations. This ambivalence of the camera is subject to no small spillage of ink, notably that of Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” but all too often one crucial component of the cinematic arrangement is conspicuously absent: the audio-track. Metz makes reference to the role of the “audio” in audiovisual only infrequently and parenthetically via extrapolations of the scopic arrangement, making little allowance for the fundamentally different relationship between the “spectator” (even his choice of words here is telling) and the audio-track. After describing voyeurism’s dependence on lack, Metz writes:

The same could be said, making the necessary modifications of course, about the invocatory (auditory) drive, less closely studied by psychoanalysis hitherto, with the exception of writers like Lacan and Guy Rosolato. I shall merely recall that of all hallucinations – and what reveals the dissociation of desire and real object better than the hallucination? – the main ones by far are visual and auditory hallucinations, those of the senses at a distance (this is also true of the dream, another form of hallucination). (60)

While Metz perhaps acknowledges the need for “necessary modifications” in schematizing the role of the audio-track in his model of the cinematic arrangement, such modifications are nowhere to be found in his essay.

This oversight (pardon the expression) is rather glaring in light of the relationship between sound and image put forward in Peeping Tom. The film makes for a unique structuring of the symbolic/imaginary distinction in its narrative insertion of the camera into the Oedipal structure: on the one hand, the camera is aligned with the father who wielded it at and gifted it to Mark; on the other, it is aligned with the mother by its substitutively maternal role insofar as it is gifted to Mark on the occasion of his father’s remarriage and thus his mother’s death. As Kaja Silverman points out, Mark also bears a would-be dyadic, imaginary, mother-infant relationship to the camera in which he sees it nearly as an extension of himself, afraid to leave the house without it and pressing it desirously to his body. To complicate things further, Mark’s father’s relationship to the camera is troubled in the scene in which he is seen giving it to Mark: as soon as he steps into the frame the shot becomes blurry; if he is on the side of the camera’s system of representation, he is yet unable to be reproduced by it. (Of note here in some capacity is the fact that Michael Powell, whose name appears prominently over a close-up of the camera in the opening credits, plays the role of Mark’s father.)

What helps to resolve this complicated model is the alignment of vocality and textuality with the father. The textual link is clear – the walls of Mark’s (father’s) apartment are lined with his prolific father’s books, the mother having no such claim to literariness. The vocal arrangement is less cut and dry. We hear the father’s voice at three key moments in the film: first when Mark shows Helen the footage his father recorded of him as a child, then when Helen reads the opening of one of Mark’s father’s books, and lastly at the very close of the film, when Mark’s library of tape recordings sounds in an atemporal chorus of screams and voices. Each of these utterances is, to borrow from Chion, acousmatic, and as such bears an ambiguous relationship to the diegesis of the film, the first having no ostensible narrative source and not seeming to be heard by the characters, the second understood to be the voiceover of text Helen is reading and thus not really “occurring” as such, the third seemingly heard by the police officer onscreen at the time but troubled by its already having occurred verbatim more or less outside of the diegetic world. The audio-track – specifically here, the voice of the father – thus plays a privileged role with respect to the image, liberated from the gaze of which the audience-member is the sole producer, thus, per Metz, “making” the image they are at once receiving. The audience’s agency is null as concerns the audio-track, shy of sticking their fingers in their ears, they are powerless to its presence. Peeping Tom narrativizes this split between audio and image-track to no small degree; as Silverman notes, Mark’s “auditory drive” – linked again to the father insofar as it is Dr. Lewis who installed the system of audio surveillance found in the house – only surfaces at the climax of the film, being subject to a far greater repression than his scoptophilic fetish.

The order of the camera thus bifurcated along imaginary and symbolic lines, the realm of the auditory – that which is outside of the camera’s representation – and the father with which it is aligned might thus belong to the order of the Real; this alignment coming into being only in response to the ambivalent bifurcation that already characterizes the film’s visual-representational order. This idea of the audio-Real is in fact all too intuitive a takeaway from Peeping Tom; from the film’s very opening sequence sound is made issue of as that which escapes the realm of symbolic/imaginary visual representation when the opening sequence replays in the credits with a substitutive soundtrack taking the place of its original, “real” sound. The most characteristically Real of these sounds is, naturally, the woman’s scream at the end of the sequence; screams exemplify the idea of the Real by coming into being through the same apparatus as spoken language and yet remaining utterly outside of it. With this in mind, thinking of the audio-Real in relation to Dr. Lewis likewise only makes sense: his studies, after all, involve eliciting screams from his own son through such horrific experiments as throwing a lizard in his bed and waking him up, camera at the ready.

That this audio-Real should be subject to so great a repression in Mark’s psyche and thus in the text itself of Peeping Tom might thus be read as narrativizing the repression of this audio-Real in mainstream cinema itself. Peeping Tom insists upon the coherence of the visual-representational even when pointedly critiquing its exploitations at the hands of contemporary filmmakers. Only in its eleventh hour does the conceit of this insistence reveal itself as an oversight, when the Real (the horror) missing from its system of representation is made issue of as Mark reveals the system of tapes. Peeping Tom thus displays a keen awareness not only of narrative cinema’s snuff-like relation to the objects it films, but also of the haphazard, disinterested treatment of sound in the audio-visual, and thus an awareness of the disavowal of the horrific Real that the auditory gives access to in response to the very insufficiency of the visual-representational.

Above: Michael Powell as Dr. A. N. Lewis, keeper of the Real, keeping one foot outside of the symbolic order even as he’s inscribed into it.