The Gaze: Object of the Scopophilic Drive

An Essay by Barry Salzman on the Freudian Perspective in "Really (Rarely) Real"


In this essay I endeavor to demonstrate the reoccurrence of both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts in my project "Really (Rarely) Real." By extension I conclude with the point of view that, in part, the continuity of art and the lives of artists are owed to the fact that even when tamed, the gaze only rests temporarily. The very notion of the gaze is inextricably intertwined with the writings of Lucien Freud about the process of gaining sexual pleasure by looking at nude bodies or erotic images, namely the scopophilic drive.

The concept of the drive(s) in Freud’s writing, and subsequent analysis of his work, was ambiguous and confusing from the outset. In the opening paragraph of Instincts and their Vicissitudes (referred to throughout this essay as Vicissitudes), Freud talks about the challenges inherent in basing science on clear definitions and uses the example of physics to illustrate how “even ‘basic concepts’ that have been established in the form of definitions are constantly being altered in their content.”1

When he wrote Vicissitudes in 1915, he acknowledged that his concept of triebe was still somewhat obscure and confusing. Adding to that early confusion, the Standard English translation based on the original 1925 translation by James Strachey, translates triebe as the English word instinct. Much has been written about this arguably poor choice, but that is beyond the scope of this paper. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the English word drive when talking about Freud’s concept of triebe.

The notion of the drive is pivotal to Freud’s work. Recognizing that at the time, he went to great lengths to explain and clarify the concept. In Freud’s writing, the defining attributes of the drive are that it always originates from within the person (and is therefore different from a physiological stimulus) and that it “never operates as a force giving a momentary impact but always as a constant one.”2

Simply put, it is an internal motivation to fulfill a need or reduce the negative aspects of an unpleasant situation. Freud links back to his pleasure principle as a means of explaining how we satisfy or alleviate our drives, whereby feelings of pleasure are connected with an abatement of the drive while displeasure is likely to fuel the drive. Given that by definition, the drive is a constant force, it is important to point out that it can never be truly satisfied, at least not over a sustained period of time. Any satisfaction is temporary. Over time the force of the drive reengages, ultimately driving perpetual continuity of certain human behaviors, like the desire to look, which is the subject of this paper. But before jumping to the gaze as the object of the drive, in order to place that into the context of Freud’s writing, we need to ask what are the drives and how many are there? Freud proposes two groups of drives: ego, or self-preservation drives and sexual drives. In lay terms, those are the physical or behavioral and the emotional (Freud later revised the drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where libido remains, sometimes referred to as Eros, and Thanatos is introduced as the death drive, downplayed by later Freudians as the aggressive drive). Freud initially identified three objects of the drives in his work: breast, feces, and scoptophilia (see section one, below, on the scopophilic gaze). Jacques Lacan later added a fourth, voice. What unifies these is that they are all detached from the subject. Each defines a point of departure from the physical body. Each is related to an orifice of the human body and is the point of departure from that which is internal, to that which is external or detached. The drives are those constant forces that have the particularity of originating from within and then detaching from the human body in search of object satisfaction. Lacan highlights the relation between the drives and their functioning as part of a group structure. He describes the drives as being highly interconnected, hence they are not only different, but are also partial.

This paper focuses on the gaze and its mediation via the Lacanian screen. In the first section below, I consider the gaze as the object of the drive, specifically what Freud calls the scopophilic drive, and its circularity as an explanation of the insatiability of our desire to look. In the second section, I look at Lacan’s elaboration on the gaze as separate from the eye and the crucial role of the screen in his subject formation, as the site of where the gaze meets the subject of representation, the “locus of mediation” where the human subject “maps himself in the imaginary capture”3 of the gaze.

I conclude with the premise that the existence of art and artists, are owed, in part, to the fact that even when tamed, the gaze of both artist and audience only rests temporarily.

The Scopophilic Gaze and Its Turning Upon the Subject

The use of the term scopohilia (origninally scoptophilia) is another that is debated by students of Freud. It is offered in the Standard Edition English translation as the Freudian notion of Schaulust. While there is no direct English translation for Schaulust, it is intended to incorporate both the German words for lust and for looking or curiosity, more along the lines of the sexual pleasure in looking, in terms of the viewer’s subjectivity, which is shaped from early childhood. Freud makes the case that the origin of the scopophilic drive in the child is auto-erotic since its original object is part of the subject’s own body, but later that drive is led, through a process of comparison, to exchange itself as the object for someone else’s body. This preliminary stage of the scopophilic drive, where the gaze is cast upon the subject’s own body, is classed under Freud’s work on narcissism but as the object shifts to someone else’s body, so we move beyond narcissism (at least temporarily).

By virtue of its title, in Vicissitudes Freud talks about the directional changes or shifts of the drives. He elaborates on two vicissitudes: the reversal of the drive into its opposite and its turning around upon the subject’s own self. He uses the term scopohilia in opposition to exhibitionism to illustrate the reversal of the drive. In this instance, the active aim of the drive is to look at and the passive aim to be looked at, again invoking Freud’s description of narcissism (which was originally gender-specific – men are active and admire women, while women receive narcissistic gratification from being looked at). It is at this point that voyeurism and exhibitionism overlap. The subject is simultaneously the looker and the looked-at.

One can interpret Image 1 (below) as an illustration of this concept in practice. As the artist I am both deriving pleasure from looking and, at the same time, desiring to be looked at by the attractive young object of my gaze. This is illustrated quite literally by the way I included myself in the background of the image.

Image 1

Image 1


Lacan, in his theory of the mirror stage, elaborates on the paradox of primary narcissism, the moment of recognition that inaugurates subjectivity as split. That split from one’s self-image is necessary to lay the groundwork for further mediations as the Other is introduced as the object of the gaze. While Freud’s focus is on the psychological state of the gazer, not the effect of the gaze on the gazee, he does make the point that in order for the gazer to experience any satisfaction, the gaze is turned around “upon the subject’s own self.” As shown in Images 2 and 3, I make frequent use of the turning of the gaze back onto the subject in my work. It illustrates both the Freudian and Lacanian notion of the particularity of the gaze as the object of the drive that detaches from the body seeking satisfaction, but that satisfaction is not realized until the gaze is returned, i.e., the circuit of the drive.

The aim of the drive does not change, but the object does and so the gazer has in fact become the gazee. It is this looping activity that makes the active gaze passive, i.e. I am looking at something that is looking at me and am therefore involved in the object of my desire. These two vicissitudes are interconnected. The “turning round upon the subject’s self and the transformation from activity to passivity converge or coincide.” 4

Image 2

Image 2


One can argue that this notion of a complex twist in the circuit of the gaze, the place at which the act of looking is returned by being looked at by the object (which is necessary to the experience of satisfaction by the subject, since satisfaction can only be realized when it is received back by the body) is evident in every successful piece of art. That experience of being looked at, literally (as in Images 2 and 3) or figuratively, by a piece of art is necessary to the intrinsic satisfaction the viewer receives from viewing art. Without it we would stop looking, and art appreciation would cease to exist.

Image 3

Image 3


The Lacanian Screen as Locus Of Mediation

Lacan, in full agreement with Freud’s Vicissitudes, built his theory of the gaze on Freud’s analysis of scopophilia. For Lacan the gaze is wholly exterior: “In the scopic field, the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture. This is the function that is found at the heart of the institution of the subject in the visible. What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside.”5 In essence, he raises the notion of a split or a fracture in the two-way nature of the gaze both as a means of entering and receiving light, where light is the metaphor for vision, so the bi-partition he refers to is the relationship between seeing and being seen. In classic Lacanian style, he uses this opportunity to fragment a word when he writes, “I am photo-graphed,” where he literally plays with the words photo meaning light and graph meaning drawing or mapping. The fracture or split is always at play, because for Lacan, the subject does not exist outside of the field of the Other, i.e., it is a function of the collective or of the consequence of the relation between the body and the Other.

In What is a Picture? Lacan draws a parallel with the animal kingdom to illustrate the point of the split between the being and its semblance. He references mimicry or the concept of a paper tiger to show how the being comes into play in matters of survival, i.e., life or death situations and reproduction, and it is through the doubling of oneself, or of the other, that the species survives. There are parallels to human desire, but also a difference in level of sophistication of the psychic process. “Only the subject – the human subject, the subject of the desire that is the essence of man – is not, unlike the animal, entirely caught up in this imaginary capture. He maps himself in it. How? In so far as he isolates the function of the screen and plays with it. Man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze. The screen is here the locus of mediation.”6

What is it that Lacan meant by the term screen? The Oxford English Dictionary offers multiple definitions that fall into two main groups. The first is where the screen obscures, conceals or protects; where it separates space in a literal or figurative way. The second is where the screen is a physical surface onto which an image is projected or attached. I believe Lacan, as a master of word-play, meant for the term to resolve within the tension of that dialectic. It is worth noting here, that as early as 1899 Freud used the term screen in connection with psychoanalysis as it related to his mnemic traces, which he characterized as screen memories that help protect the subject by repressing trauma. This introduced the initial concept of the screen as a point of mediation, while aligning with the first group of meanings referenced above. Lacan’s usage introduces the second set of meanings in reference to our cultural reserve of artworks and other physical manifestations of our visual culture, including television, cinema and now computer screens. I use the computer screen as a multi-faceted device in much of my current work. It is a tool for concealing and/or revealing. In Image 4, it divulges the gender of the subject, by showing another viewpoint or perspective from that of the photographer.

Image 4

Image 4


In a less literal application, Lacan’s screen may exist between the eye (of the subject) and the gaze (of the Other), as he splits them in "The Split between the Eye and the Gaze," (1964) in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. There, reverting more to the first group of meanings, the screen serves as an obstruction of the subject’s line of vision, facilitating a power dynamic between subject and object. In this permutation, the gaze is the unattainable object of desire that seems to make the Other complete. The subject that looks out is filled with a sense of lack, which is the true human condition and defined by the effect of the drive. The psychological function of the organ of the eye is perhaps less for looking out, and more to enable being looked at (as in self reflection), rendering the screen something of a mirror (in the figurative sense). It is this return gaze, that comes from the outside, that Lacan refers to as the obejet a. The gaze alienates subjects from themselves by causing the subject to identify with itself as the objet a, the object of the drive, thus desiring scopic satisfaction. Yet, in constructing the human subject as this objet a, the gaze denies the subject its full subjectivity. The subject is reduced to being the object of desire and, in identifying with this object, it becomes alienated from itself.7

Although split, for Lacan, the eye and the gaze are part of the same person since the gaze is only projected or imagined. It reflects desire and is engaged in a struggle for power or control, but that is an internalized struggle between looking and being looked at or between desire and being desired. The gaze therefore extends beyond the gender applications typical of more recent adaptations of Lacan’s writings to media theory. These lie beyond the scope of this paper, but as it relates to my work, I believe the gaze is a powerful and recurrent element, despite being unrelated to conventional male-female applications.

Lacan’s screen both protects from and forces an encounter with the object (or the subject of a piece of art), particularly in instances where the art engages the domain of the real. The literal representation of the screen is pivotal in my current work, both for what it is and also what it represents. However, sometimes a screen is just a screen. In my work, it makes a statement about a technology-enabled world where technology is rapidly substituting for physical inter-subjective communication at every level, starting from the most primal or libidinal. I make no judgment on this, but instead raise questions of the type: How do we interpret scopophilic drive satisfaction in a world where, borrowing from Lacan, the eye looks upon a digital representation of the Other and the gaze is returned to the subject via a highly mediated interaction which carries with it the perception of hyper-reality? What is the interplay between scopohilia and libido in an increasingly mediated world, where the real-time interaction in full high-definition and shifting boundaries between public and private gives anyone access to the once private domain of any willing participant, of which there are increasing millions? Do the classic models of engagement between subject and object still resonate in a mega-mediated world where increasingly our self-representation and representation of others is made up of bits and bytes as opposed to parts and organs, tissues and cells?

In image 5, I use the screen to partially satisfy the scopophilic drive for more (again only temporarily), but in Image 6 it frustrates that drive by obstructing the gaze.

Image 5

Image 5

Image 6

Image 6


As humans, from birth and until death, we are constantly looked at and our behavior indicates that awareness. We are both the picture and looking at the picture. The interpretation of the screen as a mirror may also be relevant in some of my work, and as Lacan says, “If I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot.”8 Perhaps I too am in the picture in some sense as an idealized representation of self, as the younger beautiful representation of a time passed. I ask myself the rhetorical question, is that what is really happening in Image 7?

Image 7

Image 7



Even as the gaze may trap the subject, the subject may tame the gaze. The function of the screen is to negotiate a laying down of the gaze. Art can have the antithetical impacts of either arresting or pacifying the gaze, or both. In aesthetic terms, Lacan says that some art attempts a trompe-l’oeil (to trick the eye), but that only works once we realize the eye has in fact been tricked. While some art does endeavor to trick, all art seeks a dompte-regarde, a taming of the gaze. Art works for us when it allows the gaze to rest, when it allows us to lay down our gaze and indulge our eye on the illusion of fullness. But, as is the human condition, this does not last for long. Sooner rather than later the scopophilic drive reengages and we are once again driven to see and be seen as part of the ongoing circuitry of life that defines our very existence. Perhaps, in small part this is the psychic apparatus’s gift back to artists, driving us to continue to make art for a perpetual viewing audience.


1Sigmund Freud, Instincts and Their Vicissitudes, from Freud – Complete Works, Ivan Smith, (2000, 2007, 2012), 2957.


3Jacques Lacan, What is a Picture? Chapter 9 in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (Seminar XI), trans. Alan Sheridan (1981; New York; W.W. Norton, 1998), 107.

4Freud, 2964.

5Lacan, 106.

6Lacan, 107.

7Lacan, The Split between the Eye and the Gaze, Chapter 6 in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 67-68. Note by Phil Lee, University of Chicago Media Studies. (URL:

8Lacan, The Line and Light, Chapter 8 in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 97.