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Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television

By Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

 "One of the prime features of the postmodern experience is fragmentation, where inherited self-identity of history is no longer a stable, secure fact but requires active construction. ‘A self-identity has to be created and more or less continually reordered against the backdrop of shifting experiences of day-to-day life and the fragmenting tendencies of modern institutions’ (Giddens, 1991, p. 198). This construction is partly achieved through developing coherent narratives of the self, and partly through finding opportunities for the investment of trust in institutions other than traditional ones such as the church. Brands offer consistency in an ever-changing world and this reassurance is a vital element in their added value….Brands can be used by the consumer as resources for the symbolic construction of the self."

---Elliot and Wattanasuwan, The International Journal of Advertising, May 1998




F- "For film theorists, psychoanalysis has provided a useful way of discussing our relationship with the cinema. It has done this primarily through an analogy between film and that product of slumber the dream--- tracing the relationship between films themselves and dream-work, that unconscious process of transformation that permits us to relate ‘stories told in images’ to ourselves while we sleep."


The problem of consciousness: The formation of the self.

Self and the media.


Psychoanalysis as a Cultural Theory

Basic tenets of psychoanalysis:


"Psychoanalysis, as a theory of human psychology, decribes the ways in which the small human being comes to develop a specific personality and sexual identity within the larger network of social relations called culture. It takes as its object the mechanisms of the unconscious---- resistance, repression, sexuality, and the Oedipus complex--- and seeks to analyze the fundamental structures of desire that underlie all human activity."


"Freud, who discovered and theorized the unconscious, believed that human life is dominated by the need to repress our tendencies toward gratification of basic desires and drives (the pleasure principle) in favor or delayed and more socially acceptable means of gratification (the reality principle). We come to who we are as adults by way of a massive and intricate repression of those very early, very intense expressions of libidinal (sexual) desire."

"The unconscious, however, is not simply a ready-and-waiting place for repressed desire--- it is produced by the very act of repression."


"To Freud, this distinction (between instinct for biological needs and pleasure) indicates the emergence of sexuality; desire is born in the first separation of the biological instinct from the sexual drive….. In other words, there is a process of hallucinating--- a fantasmatic process--- going on; each time the child cries for milk, we can say that the child is actually crying for "milk" (milk-in-quotes)---- that hallucinated image of the bonus of satisfaction that came when the need of hunger was fulfilled."


Symbols, in their initial formation, are charged with desire.

"As the child grows, there is a gradual organization of the libidinal drives, that, although still centered on the child’s own body, channels sexuality toward various objects and aims…"


"What is important here is that the child does not yet experience itself as a unified self, nor is it able to distinguish between itself and the outer world…."

"In Freud’s view, the Oedipus complex marks the decisive moment in the child’s development, for it defines the individual’s emergence into sexually differentiated selfhood. In the pre-Oedipal stages, both the male and female child are in a dual, reciprocal relation with the mother; with the Oedipal moment, this two-sided relation becomes three, and a triangle is formed by the child and both parents. The parent of the same sex becomes a rival in the child’s desire for the parent of the opposite sex….

"The boy gives up his incestuous desire for the mother because of the threat of punishment by castration perceived to come from the father. The child copes with this threat by identifying with his father. He thereby learns how to take up a ‘masculine role in society. The forbidden desire for the mother is driven into the unconscious, and the boy begins to accept substitutes for the mother/desired object.

"For the female, the oedipal moment is not one of threat, but of realization--- she recognizes that she has already been castrated and, disillusioned in the desire for the father, reluctantly identifies with the mother."


"What is relevant for this essay, however, is the work of the unconscious, the production of fantasy, and the erotic component of desire present in all of our activities (including watching film and TV)."

The Oedipal moment is played out at the unconscious level, both forming the self and at the same time, forming the self through the repression of desire into the unconscious. Through the Oedipal complex the child moves from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. Selfhood depends on repression.


"For Freud, the individual (or subject) who emerges from this process is irrevocably split between two levels of being--- the conscious life of the ego (or self) and the repressed desires of the unconscious. This unconscious is formed by repression, for it is guilty desires, forced down below the surface of conscious awareness, that cause it to come into being."

"Thus it is radically distinct from rational conscious life, it is utterly other, strange, illogical, and contradictory in its instinctual play of drives and ceaseless yearning for gratification."


Dreams provide access to unconscious--- produces a symbolic text, which must be read, but it uses various techniques to hide its desiring:

Condensation: whole range of associations are represented by a single image.

Displacement: psychic energy is transferred from something significant to something banal, conferring great importance on something trivial.

Conditions of representability: In which it is possible to represent certain thoughts by visual images.

Secondary revision: in which a logical narrative coherence is imposed on a stream of images.

The unconscious and conscious are linked through language. "As dreams, slips of the tongue, failures of memory, jokes, puns indicate unconscious wishes and desires---- with a logic of their own--- underlie even the most innocent activity.


"This fact implies that there can never be a one-to-one relationship between language and the world: meaning always exceeds the surface, and things do not always mean what they appear to."



"Lacan rereads the Oedipus complex along these lines: the child moves out of the pre-Oedipal unity with the mother not only through fear of castration, but through the acquisition of language as well. Thus the moment of linguistic capability (the ability to speak, to distinguish a speaking self) is the moment of one’s insertion into a social realm (a world of adults and verbal exchange).

All of us learn to speak in the language and customs of our particular culture: Lacan inverts this to say that we are in fact spoken by the culture itself. Our sense of self is formed through the perception and language of others, and this formation takes place even at the deepest levels of the unconscious. In other words, we can only speak using a language that is foreign to us when we come into the world. Someone else gives us our names, and we learn who we are through the responses of others."

Imaginary Register/Mirror Phase: "Between the ages of six and eighteen months the human infant is physically uncoordinated: it perceives itself as a mass of disconnected, fragmentary movements…. When the child sees its image (for example, in a mirror or in its mother’s face), it mistakes this unified coherent shape for a superior self. The child identifies with this image (as both reflecting the self and as something other), and finds in it a kind of satisfying unity that it cannot experience in its own body. The infant internalizes this image as an "ideal ego" and this process forms the basis for all later identifications, which are imaginary in principle. Simply put, in order for communication to occur at all, we must at some level be able to say to each other, "I know how you feel." The ability to temporarily--- and imaginatively become someone else is begun by this original moment in the formation of the self."

Symbolic (roughly equivalent to Oedipal process, but based on language): "In this schema, the figure of the father represents the fact that a wider familial and social network exists and that the child must seek a position in this context. The child must go beyond the dual identifications of the imaginary, in which the distinction between "me/you" is always blurred, to take a position as someone who can designate himself or herself as an "I" in the world of adult third persons. The appearance of the father prohibits the child’s total unity with the mother and, as noted before, causes desire to be repressed into the unconscious."


Self is formed in relationship to others through the images of ourselves that are reflected back to us and at the moment of speaking the word "I" (entering language) we are cut off from the earlier sense of twoness/or even oneness with mother.

"Thus when we speak, our conscious, intended meanings always bear the traces of what we have repressed. This is what Lacan means when he says that he subject is always split in language….

"You the subject, as in the subject of a sentence, always take up a somewhat arbitrary position when speaking. The pronoun "I" stands in for the ever-elusive subject, the speaking self. When I say, "I am lying to you," the "I" in the sentence is fairly stable and coherent, but the "I’ that pronounces the sentence is an always changing, shifting force."



  1. We are what we watch and say.
  2. Speaking and watching are processes that are at the heart of identity formation.

create for us? And how?

For consideration: The rape in Ally McBeal and the rape in DreamworldsII.

See D. Grodin and T. Lindlof, Constructing the Self in a Mediated World, Sage, 1996.

K. Gergen, The Saturated Self, Basic Books, 1994.

  1. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, Stanford, 1992.

K. Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford, 1983.

Psychoanalysis and Film Studies

What makes watching feel so good:

"Psychoanalytic film theory emphasizes the notion of production in its

description, considering the viewer as a kind of desiring producer of the

cinematic fiction. According to this idea, then, when we watch a film it

is as if we were somehow dreaming it as well; our unconscious desires

work in tandem with those that generated the film-dream."

Thinking through the cinematic apparatus: "From this is should be clear that there are both technological and libidinal/erotic components that intersect to form the cinematic apparatus as a whole."

The split-spectator:

This is not true, but I’m acting as if it is true. The play between the border of the conscious/unconscious.


Viewer as artificial construct:

"The spectator is discussed as a "space" that is both ‘productive" (as in the production of dream-work) and ‘empty" (anyone can occupy it); the cinema in some sense constructs its spectators through what is called the fiction effect.

"Three factors go into the psychoanalytic construction of the viewer: 1) regression; 2) primary identification; and 3) concealment of those "marks of enunciation" that stamp the film with authorship."


"Baudry says that the cinema situation reproduces the hallucinatory power of a dream because it turns perception into something that looks like a hallucination."

Except "film offers an artificial psychosis without offering the dreamer the possibility of exercising any kind of immediate control."

Primary identification:

Viewer identifies with self as spectator: "From a look that seems to proceed from the back of the head (from the projector behind us in the theater)–precisely where fantasy locates the focus of all vision--- the spectator is given that illusory capacity to be everywhere at once…. The spectator identifies less with what is represented, the spectacle itself, than with what stages the spectacle, makes it seen, obliging him to see what it sees."

This is possible because we have already gone through the mirror stage, learning that our selves are to be found in the images outside of us. "Part of the cinema’s fascination then, comes form the fact that while it allows for the temporary loss of ego (the film spectator becomes someone else) it simultaneously reinforces the ego. In a sense, the film viewer both loses him/herself and refinds him/herself--- over and over---- by continually reenacting the first fictive moment of identification and establishment of identity."


Marks of enunciation

"Dreams and fantasy have this in common with fiction: they are all imaginary productions that have their sources in unconscious desire. Freud is very concise when he summarizes this function of the desiring subject: "His majesty the Ego, the hero of all day-dreams and all novels."

"The film works to hide its "real" author, thereby encouraging the viewer to forget that s/he is watching someone else’s dream, a story that is the result of someone else’s desire."

"Metz connects the process of enunciation to voyeurism, the erotic component of seeing that founds cinema. In psychoanalytic terms, voyeurism applies to any kind of sexual gratification obtained from vision, and is usually associated with a hidden vantage point."

"Metz shows how the space of cinematic enunciation becomes the position of cinematic viewing: "If the traditional film tends to suppress all marks of the subject of enunciation, this is in order that the viewer may have the impression of being that subject himself, but an empty absent subject, a pure capacity for seeing."

Psychoanalysis and Television

Gaze vs. the glance.

Perpetual present.

"Whether live or on tape, much of television -- from news programs and talk shows to soap operas and situation comedies -- creates the impression that we are watching events as they take place. Whatever the format,

television’s 'immediate presence' invokes the illusion of a reality

presented directly and expressly for the viewer... (Thus television

substitutes liveness and directness for the cinematic dream-state,

immediacy and presentness for regression)"

Distracted viewer: "The desire to see and the desire to know, wedded in the cinema by the spectator’s guided gaze, find themselves liberated in TV and intensified because of this---- numerous partial identifications. Voyeuristic pleasure is not bound to a single object, but circulates in a constant exchange."

Many looks:

"Three different types of camera looks ensure that the 'constructed

Spectator’ of television will be different from that of film. For example,

Think of the different camera looks operating in a simple local television

News story. We see the news anchor as s/he introduces a 'live' report from

A reporter 'on the scene.' We then see the reporter as he or she addresses

Us directly. During the reporter's account, we may be given another 'look'

As we see footage of the event being described but recorded earlier. The

Number of 'looks' may be further multiplied in more complicated stories:

Shots from helicopters, 'live' reports interspersed with footage shots

months earlier, footage of eyewitnesses to the event reported, etc. Thus

television generates a variety of perspectives and camera positions with

which to identify."

"Finally, one of the most important differences between film and television, when analyzed in terms of psychoanalysis, involves the way that our identification is negotiated through point-of-view and reverse-shot structures."


"Most often, the spectator's ability to construct a mentally continuous

time and space out of fragmentary images is based on 'suturing' (sewing

together) of looks, a structured relay of glances:


(1) from the

filmmaker/enunciator/camera toward the profilmic event (the scene observed by the camera);

(2) between the characters within the fiction; and (3) across the visual field from spectator to screen -- glances that tie the

scene together and bind the viewer to the film. Central to the process of

tying the look of the camera, the look of the characters, and the look of

the spectator together are the reverse-shot and the point-of-view shot;

these are the main means by which 'the look' is inscribed in the cinematic

fiction and the experience of the characters is shared."

"The positioning of the spectator as a sort of ideal voyeur is totally

broken down in television. Most often in television, the expected

responding shot of the reverse-shot structure is denied, and therefore the

spectator is placed outside of the fictional world instead of within it.

Whereas in the cinema the reverse-shot structure works together with the

point of view system to bind the spectator into a position of coherence and

fictive participation, in television the effect is just the opposite.

Voyeurism is engaged precisely because of the refusal of such a binding



Another Kind of Pleasure

"Even though action takes place in a limited number of locations...scenes

are marked by a constant diversity of camera angles and distances within a

single space. Camera distance is further complicated by a continually

moving (or zooming) camera that often rests only momentarily on a

conversation before moving again. For this reason there is a perpetual

'fracturing’ of the televisual space."

"Perhaps we can best see the different pleasures of plurality and dispersion that television provides in the ways that it reorganizes, and thereby reconstitutes secondary identifications.

"Soap operas encourage multiple identifications with characters by keeping those characters perpetually open to change."

"Identification involves the ability of the subject of "fantasy" to occupy

a variety of roles -- continually sliding, doubling and exchanging numerous

fictive positions."

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