Skip to main content

Finishing Desire Off: Decollation of the Gaze in the Visual Images of Alex Katz, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau.

Finishing Desire Off.
Like many of the pieces I have posted here rather than trying to publish, this article has a troubled history. I first presented it at the IAPL in 1998 while I was still working on my PhD. The paper had no direct relationship with that thesis in fact. I presented in a dark room with a double screen projector, one on either side of me, flashing up these remarkably unsettling images. The effect was apparently rather dramatice and afterwards a mysterious man took me to one side saying he was starting a new Lacan journal and could he have the paper. I said yes but the journal never happened. I then sent it to another psychoanalysis journal which accepted it but tragically their offices were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks in New York and they decided not to continue the journal. So then I sent it to a journal related to Brunel university where I work. The reader's report savaged the article saying it was everything that was wrong with literary readings of Lacan! Finally I was asked to send it for consideration to the journal Contemporary Literature which i did and I never heard from them again however many times I contacted them. After nearly 10 years I have finally decided to move on from this.

You may notice this apparently has nothing to do with poetry. In fact there is a sister piece to this on decollation in Mallarme and Flaubert to be found at: ““I want you to give me on a dish the head...”: symbolism, decollation and femininity in Mallarmé’s ‘Hérodiade.’” Psychoanalytic Studies 2.2 (2000): 141-157. This then is part of a wider consideration of textual truncation and finitude that remains central to my ideas on poetry, lineation and so on.


While a great deal has been written about the phallus and, by necessity, castration, the importance of the eye in the dramatic environment of the formation, and subsequent vanquishing, of the subject’s hopes and dreams has been neglected. This paper aims to redress this imbalance through a consideration of the role of the eye as a metonymic indicator of the operations of desire in the scopic field, and a consideration of the violence of cutting off the eye through the act of decapitation. It is not that the importance of the scopic field itself has been ignored, far from it. In fact, the gaze may be the most elucidated and applied of all of Lacan’s innovations. Yet, there is something of the terrible act of castration and the looming, ambiguous presence of the phallus that invites scandal, exegesis, confrontation, and finally compromise.

Certainly, the gaze can also be phallic, but the phallus itself cannot be an adequate figure for the day to day operations of the gaze. This is precisely to do with the means by which the penis gets to stand in for, and represent, the questionable power of the phallic and then, also the way in which its physical separation from the subject by way of the allegory of castration comes to represent all that is abject, bereft and culturally impotent. We are talking, of course, about the complex figurative lures and denials of metonymy that somehow allows the penis to be phallic but demands that some other somatic indicator works on behalf of the scopic. That indicator has traditionally been the eye and with just cause.

Lacan’s theory of metonymy is one of his enduring legacies, as significant as Freud’s theory of the unconscious if less apparently beguiling. In contrast to the almost paranoid adoption of the law of the unconscious in contemporary popular culture linking together politics, capitalism, the supernatural and the extra-terrestrial in various narratives of global inter-connectiveness, the nature of metonymy’s connection is far more localised and particular. It asks that the subject pay attention to what is next door, proximate and to hand.

The way in which metaphor connects things at the conceptual level, searching for cognitive similarities to overstep apparent differences between heterogeneous aspects of our lives, predisposes the subject to big narratives covering vast differences and implicating all in their path. In this way, metaphor becomes the perfect tropic machine for the development of modern paranoia.

By way of contrast, metonymy’s means of operating by finding literal, causal contiguities based on a physical connection only allows for a more modest story. In addition to its local, particular and singular mode of operation, metonymy is also a much more hands-on process, primarily because its concatenations are not cognitive but physical. If a part stands in for a whole that part is a physical component of the whole, similarly if one thing is linked to another because they are tied up in a mutual causality, this means that they must physically intervene on each other.

Metonymy is, of course, a linguistic figuration and yet Lacan’s interest in it is pitched towards the scopic realm in a manner that is, at first glance, controversial. The world of the gaze and vision generally is more aligned to the metaphoric because it relies on opening up a space, indeed of depicting space, followed by an invitation to cross over the space in your mind. You are asked to put yourself in the position of the agent of the film, or view the landscape from the location of the artist. You must look, but you can never touch. It would seem then that the visual is always in some way metaphoric.

In Écrits Lacan goes even further in this direction by defining metonymy as “word-to-word” (Lacan, Écrits 156), and metaphor as “one word for another” (Lacan, Écrits 157). Certainly, this simple differentiation helps us to better conceive why metonymy is much more local and physical, as it connects words-to-words—a fact further performed for us by the concatenating dashes Lacan uses here—while metaphor removes the first word and takes another in its stead. These two words of metaphor need never meet, whereas the words of metonymy must do so. However, it further problematises any possible relationship between the visual and metonymy in that it seems to locate metonymy solely in the realm of linguistic concatenations that do not seem possible in the scopic field.

I will return to this later but for now a number of questions need to be asked of the scopic field in terms of metonymy. The first of these is what is the metonym in the scopic that is equivalent to that of the phallic male organ in desire? Second, what would the cutting off of this metonym consist of? Third, if the scopic field is metonymic what is the relation between the visual agencies of the gaze and the materiality of language that allows for the physical demonstration of how metonymy works every time language is used? While these questions must be considered in detail, at this stage one can also give straightforward answers to them.

The metonym of the scopic, the missing scene if you will in the drama of the subject, is the eye, taking us back to my opening comments on its neglect in the field of psychoanalysis. Here is a simple formula: the eye is to the scopic realm of the gaze what the phallus is to the realm of desire. The mythical act of mutilation of the subject that is symbolised by castration in desire is matched in the scopic field in our culture by decapitation, a fact already attested to by Hélène Cixous. Obviously, this means that some relationship between the eye and the head must be investigated.

This act of mutilation has its own mythical story to match that of the oedipal family conflict, and this story is mapped onto the myth of Salomé and the beheading of John the Baptist also known as decollation. It is a narrative every bit as powerful and appalling as that of castration and I intend to use some of its sensationalism in this piece to put forward a more engaging case for the eye as of equal importance as the phallus.

The answer to the final question is perhaps somewhat more involved and requires that one take up metonymy in terms of signs rather than words. At this point, we can already begin to see that such an action begins to allow metonymy some relevance in the scopic realm. In Lacan’s algebraic formula of the role of lack in the formation of the subject through signification, a bar separates the signifier (S) from the signified (s). He writes the sign as S/s and expects from this that one glean all there is to know about subjectivity, lack and desire. Lacan writes the formula out as the following equation:[i]

f (S…S’)S @ S(—)s

In addition, he accompanies the formula with a dense, but highly significant, gloss defining it as,
the metonymic structure, indicating that it is the connection between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports. The sign—placed between ( ) represents here the maintenance of the bar – which, in the original algorithm, marked the irreducibility in which, in the relations between signifier and signified, the resistance of signification is constituted (Lacan, Écrits 164).

Any doubts as to the foundational importance of metonymy in Lacan’s work must be dispelled at this juncture I believe. The bar, which separates the signifier from the signified, is the bar of lack that produces desire. It is a line which can never be crossed not because one cannot have what one desires, as it is often stated, but because what one desires is encased permanently within the sign. Just as the signifier will never “have” the signified, so the subject will never have the object of their desire.

In addition to this, we have the importance of metonymy. The equation roughly states that the function of the signifier is approximately equal in value to that of the sign, which seems nonsensical when one considers that the signifier is only one part of the sign. Either this relegates the signified to a minuscule value which can be easily refuted by the disproportionate amount of importance the subject places on it through its investment in desire, or its value must be determined in another way.

The role of signification is to connect signifier to signifier. This requires that one does not construct an allegory that can be exchanged for being, but instead to produce a being through the endless generation of an ever-expanding allegory. One word connects to another and another and another, the final meaning always deferred and yet always there, close by and proximate. Like the ridiculous activity of chasing a dropped letter in the wind or an animal that has slipped from its cage, the true meaning is just in reach, but the main effect of your reaching out to grab it is to push it just that little bit further away. The materiality of signification is metonymy, the physical proximity of meaning, which can never be grasped because word can only connect to word, never to thing. Returning to the right hand side of the equation, S/s, we can now see how these two values are the same. It is because S connects only to S that S is permanently barred from s.

One would think it is easy not to have, to be incomplete and lacking. Western metaphysics’ valorisation of the subject of plenitude has led us to think that the subject in full is the highest level of subjective existence. Additionally, it is often stated that Lacan indicated the truth of the subject that lacks, and all the horror that this ought to result in. However, isn’t it the case that Lacan did not take something away from the subject when he introduced lack, but gave the subject something very valuable?

As he says above, it is metonymy which permits the elision wherein lack-of-being comes about and in doing so, installs the permanent bar between the subject and the object of its desires that allows for the resistance of signification. Somewhere between the permission of elision and the allowance of resistance in signification, the final truth of the subject is to be found, and it is found precisely in the mixture of metonymy, the scopic, the eye, the gaze and its decollation that this truth is best expressed.

As critics, because of this, we must turn our attention back to the gaze one more time. It is imperative that we start the gaze up again so that, once and for all, we can finish off the lengthy narrative of the subject, the object, its lack, and its desire. The best entry point for such a final consideration of the role of the eye in the scopic field is, of course, the visual arts themselves where metonymy and the scopic first came together in Lacan’s own mind.

[i] My thanks to Dr. Barbara Montanari at Imperial College, London for help in understanding both what Lacan was trying to get at here and also the problem of how, as an equation, it does not actually work. It was, paradoxically, the understanding of an equation that does not balance that opened up exactly what Lacan’s intentions were in this instance. One must assume, given Lacan’s level of understanding of mathematics, that he was aware of such a basic error and intended it to work metonymically to allow the meaning of metonymy to slip in through this slip up.


This is very helpful for me in relation to something I am currently writing on beheading and the impossible (see The Whim for recent excerpts). See also Lupton's _Afterlives of the Saints_ for Lacanian reading of beheading. Best, Nicola

Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

For a long time I have felt that poetics has not taken into consideration a great deal written about issues pertaining to difference and repetition to be found in contemporary philosophy. As poetry's whole energy and dynamic is based on a fundamental relation to differential versus repeated units of sense (sense both in terms of meaning and the sensible), any work on difference and repetition would be welcome. That some of the greatest thinkers of the age, notably Deleuze and Derrida, have made both issues core to their whole philosophical systems is so remarkable that poetics is impoverished if it does not fully acknowledge this.

Not that I am one to talk. Although I am aware of the centrality of Deleuze's work to postmodern poetry, I have as yet not been able to really address this but in Poetry Machines I began that work at least. In preparation for the few hundred words I wrote there, here are the 10,000 words I annotated in preparation.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and …

Frank O'Hara, Collected Poems pp.201-300 Annotated

Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems
(Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1995)
Pages 201-300

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)

Frank O’Hara “In the Movies”, 206-209

· interesting that this poem has not been picked up by the critics for it is an easy point to indicate the importance of films in O'Hara’s aesthetic indicating the dissolves, cuts and montage effects he has been credited with and whilst I do not like to appropriate analogous terms in this fashion the montage of O'Hara is easily distinguishable form the collage of Ashbery in that here it is the movement from image to image in an attempt at seamlessness, a basic synaesthesia of subject in the now of consciousness.
· in addition to the basic aesthetic implications of this use of films there are also certain other issues that he raises here but does not really…