The Gaze in Fassbinder
from Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992), pp. 126-128:
Identity, as psychoanalysis has taught us, necessitates the internalization of a series of things which are in the first instance external. Freud insists upon this principle with respect both to the ego and the super-ego, defining the former as the psychic mapping of what is initially a body-image, and the latter as the introjection of parental authority, in the guise, for instance, of the father’s voice. Lacan’s account of the mirror stage further elaborates this notion of an exteriority which is taken within the subject, first in the guise of its mirror image, subsequently in the form of parental imagoes, and later yet in the shape of a whole range of cultural representations, the moi becoming over time more and more explicitly dependent upon that which might be said to be “alien” or “other.” What Lacan designates the “gaze” also manifests itself initially within a space external to the subject, first through the mother’s look as it facilitates the “join” of infant and mirror image, and later through all of the many other actual looks with which it is confused. It is only at a second remove that the subject might be said to assume responsibility for “operating” the gaze by “seeing” itself being seen even when no pair of eyes are trained upon it — by taking not so much the gaze as its effects within the self. However, consciousness as it is redefined by Lacan hinges not only upon the internalization but upon the elision of the gaze; this “seeing” of oneself being seen is experienced by the subject-of-consciousness — by the subject, that is, who arrogates to itself a certain self-presence or substantiality — as a seeing of itself seeing itself.
What happens within Fassbinder’s cinema is that both the gaze and the images which promote identity remain irreducibly exterior, stubbornly removed from the subject who depends upon them for its experience of “self.” [Thomas] Elsaesser has touched upon the first of these exteriorizations in “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject: Fassbinder and Germany,” although his emphasis falls more fully upon the exhibitionism of Fassbinder’s characters than upon the gaze on which they depend:
Their endless waiting wants to attract someone to play the spectator, who would confirm them as subjects, by displaying the sort of behavior that would conform to the reactions they expect to elicit. The audience is inscribed as voyeurs, but only because the characters are so manifestly exhibitionist. Substantiality is denied to both characters and audience, they derealize each other, as all relations polarize themselves in terms of seeing and being seen… to be, in Fassbinder, is to be perceived, esse est percipi.
The film through which Elsaesser pursues his thesis… is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973), but there are many other texts in that filmmaker’s oeuvre where characters display themselves in this way to whomever will look, and in which subjectivity is consequently shown to depend upon a visual agency which remains insistently outside. “We are watched on all sides,” the singer, Tripelli (Barbara Valentin) warns in Effi Briest (1974), a curse which turns into a lost source of sustenance when the socius finally looks away from Effi. Continue reading…