It has occurred to me that the gaze is an over-used concept in Cultural Studies. There have been two problematic ways in which the Lacanian gaze has been discussed in cultural studies: (1) the assumption that the gaze is central or otherwise important for Lacanian psychoanalysis, and (2) the assumption that the gaze of which they speak, which really seems Foucaldian, is the same gaze of which Lacan spoke. The second argument has already been adequately discussed. Joan Copjec, for example, has made her mark in this area. She has claimed that the Lacanian concept of the gaze has been abused by Film Studies. I won’t go over the details of her argument here. I am much more concerned with the first assumption. The first assumption is one that is also shared by Joan Copjec. Copjec seems to presume, in her argument against Film Studies, that the gaze was important to begin with. Any careful study of Lacan’s work will demonstrate that this is clearly not the case.
There have been two responses so far to this claim: (1) we should take the concept and not care about how Lacan himself used it – we should put it to work ourselves, and (2) we should note that he gaze has always been there within Lacan’s work. It is striking that the second claim is easier to refute, especially in the digital age. The concept of the gaze only appears within the 11th seminar, and, even within the 11th seminar, it only appears for a brief moment in the development of Lacan’s other points. The gaze is sandwiched in between his discussion of the transference and the drive. I will not discuss what the larger point of the gaze was but I will state up front that it was only there to lead into a discussion of the partial drives (and, particularly, the scopic field). Moreover, if one searches through the Ecrits one will find only one, maybe two, references to the concept of the gaze. However, these references are in passing. This means that Lacan himself did not, in his major collection, care enough of the concept to discuss it.
This leads me to a very interesting point about the way in which Cultural Studies thinks the Lacanian gaze. Cultural Studies cares not about the gaze but about the way in which they can relativize their knowledge of the gaze. In other words, they do not care about exegetical readings of the gaze but rather that they can appropriate the gaze and use it in whatever way they like. Clearly, Lacan’s method was not the same. Lacan spent many years of his life reading Freud’s texts line by line before he was able to begin to appropriate and construct his own concepts – and then, even then, these concepts, he claimed, were steeped in Freudian orthodoxy. This is what he meant by the “return to Freud”.
Well, then, I claim we depart from Cultural Studies and return to an exegetical reading of Lacan. Zizek really hit the nail on the head with respect to the problematic Cultural Studies approach:
[T]he politically correct cultural studies theorists often pay for their arrogance and lack of a serious approach by confusing truth (the engaged subjective position) and knowledge – that is, by disavowing the gap that separates them, by directly subordinating knowledge to truth (say, a quick sociocritical dismissal of a specific science such as quantum physics or biology without proper acquaintance with the inherent conceptual structure of this field). The problem of cultural studies effectively is often the lack of specific disciplinary skills. […] With all its criticism of traditional philosophical universalism, cultural studies effectively functions as an ersatz philosophy. Notions are thus transformed into ideological universals.
Cultural Studies often lacks a serious and dogmatic engagement with the conceptual structures of the fields which they weave their rhetoric through. This is characteristic of the bricolage method of writing – the junk-pile, so to speak, is used freely, and one takes whatever one likes and leaves the rest of the junk. Bricolage, as a method of writing, is quickly approaching its sell-by date. One is increasingly moved toward a choice: return to the concept of the universal, of dogmatic reading, etc., or else fall victim to relativization of knowledge within the existing hegemonic frameworks.