Reflection on feedback part five and completing the course


Just as with my recently completed Drawing 1, all I want to do now is go back to the beginning of this course and do it all over again with what I now know, digging a little deeper along the way. That said, I’m thrilled to have made it to the end, there were moments during the first two parts that I felt I never would.

My attempts in the early part of the course to examine the theories and concepts  presented left my mind scrambled. Just as soon as I thought I had a grasp of one idea, another would slip from my understanding. To be able to understand one meant understanding another and so on. As they began to take hold, the next challenge was to fluently refer to them in my analysis. This felt awkward at first, but towards the end of the course I began to appreciate and even delight in the precise language of the theorists I discovered.

I’ve gained an understanding about the development of art, specifically how we came to modernism and postmodernism, about the impact of photography on our visual culture.  I’m ashamed to admit I’d never really considered how ideologies are reinforced – now I see it all around me – and I can’t stop pointing it out to whoever will listen.

I watch films through new eyes, spotting signs, references. Visiting galleries it’s fascinating to be able to add to my initial response all that I’ve learnt. The course has made me think about authenticity,  influence, the unconscious and conscious, context, the extraordinary impact of visual culture on our society.

For my final assignment in Drawing 1 I had begun to consider the ubiquitous ‘screen’ in my work, but my grasp on how to say what I wanted to express was tentative. Today it feels more solid – I think I could articulate my ideas more effectively.

I’ve always loved the way art makes me question and coming to the end of this course I feel maybe not better equipped to answer those questions, but perhaps better equipped to know where those questions come from.

Specifically on feedback part five:

As ever I’m relieved with the positive feedback. I had a last minute crisis of confidence, feeling that I had lost my thread, but no.

Most pointers are on essay style – to refer to images, to alphabetise my reading list, not to mix footnotes in as well.

My tutor pointed out a couple of thoughts that could be explored further, but I’m wary of the word count – and already 96 words over it. But it shows to me that there is always further to go, more investigation to be done, and given a greater word count I would love to wring my subjects dry!



reflection on feedback from part four and completing part five

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Relieved and delighted in equal measures with the feedback from Part Four. Just as I near the end of the course I feel my confidence starting to grow, that yes, I do have some grasp of the theories and concepts studies, so why not apply them myself, to what I see?

What I do need to remember is that there is always an extra level to go in any analysis.

I found the brief for Assignment Five very open. I must have read it hundred times, trying to find its essence, but in the end accepted that it’s for me to create my own focus. My tutor referred to it as a ‘case study’ in her ‘Pointers for the next assignment’ and recommended a tight focus. My target is the shift in reality brought about by social media – the fact that our willing and individual participation has made us more entrenched than ever in a virtual reality.

As I type this I’m wondering if I should go back in and make  this clearer. I’ve spent weeks researching and writing notes for the essay – I think in that process it can be quite easy to lose the nugget of an idea that came in the beginning, though sometimes this can go in reverse and the nugget develops from the process. I experienced a bit of both here.

What made my brain really tick through Assessment Five was knowing where to stop, where the boundaries were. This subject of reality is so relevant today – considering all that is happening in world politics – that I often found myself stopping to wonder exactly what visual culture was, where it stops crossing over into other aspects of life. Taking this course as part of the Fine Arts degree (and having studied Drawing 1 alongside) I found myself trying to pull back and make visual culture relevant to those studies,  but of course it is so much wider than that.

assignment five: what is reality?

In this final assignment you will explore the issues surrounding the real in contemporary society. Analyse the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ in our contemporary culture. 


Photo by Mintio. From the series The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths, via



Since commerce dramatically expanded our visual culture post-war we have been nudged steadily towards a new reality, perhaps blindly at first, then with a postmodern nod to what was going on. But the introduction of social media and its cohort the digital camera marked a critical change and with the dedication of a teenager building new worlds on Minecraft we became active participants in its creation.


Post-war commerce embraced advertising to show us in literal form products available to buy. Its approach rapidly became more sophisticated, pointing out not just the specification of each product but the benefit to our lives. In the example above right an early 1950s advertisement for Nescafe coffee focuses heavily on the product: its price competitiveness, where to buy it, how to make it, the sealed jar. By comparison in the late 80s the same brand of coffee was sold through the blossoming romance of a fictional sophisticated urban couple.  Hearing about the coffee was no longer enough, we needed to believe that by sharing the same brand as this couple we might lead a similarly glamorous life.  By the 1980s a logo alone was capable of engendering anything from feelings of inadequacy to absolute (albeit temporary) fulfilment. We had long become disconnected from Marx’s use-value – the value of what we consumed was no longer rooted in reality.


Mass production and mass media led to a world full of advertising images competing for our attention, a world where every conceivable space was for sale, from the sides of a railway track to the back of a matchbox. Times Square (above) is an extreme example;  brands shout for attention, selling their wares in the shops below. This led philosopher Guy Debord to develop his theory of the ‘spectacle’. But Debord was not just describing an omnipresent wallpaper of images, but how we interacted with it.

Debord’s spectacle describes a continual and hypnotic loop of desire and opportunity for that desire to be fulfilled, building on ideologies of family, health, lifestyle. And even if we knew the spectacle was not based in reality – stylists and strategists were behind every image – the idea had been planted that somehow through these images we could become complete. The unreal had become real. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour” (Debord, 1969)


Selection of stills from Hypernormalisation (via

Alongside commerce, politicians and news media were also beginning to understand the power of creating a narrative to garner votes and sales. In his 2016 film Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis proposes that those in power since the 1970s had “reformed the narrative” using “perception management”, resulting in a new reality that is easier to understand and easier to manage, ultimately delivering stability and influence but little change. Referring specifically to Putin’s ‘political technologists’, Curtis describes their idea of reality as “something that could be manipulated and shaped into anything you wanted it to be”.

Arild Fetveit (Associate Professor in the Department for Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen) in his paper on Reality TV in the Digital Era echoes Curtis as he puts forward his ideas on why reality TV became so popular in the 90s: “virtual reality is inspired by the dream of alternative and compensatory reality…so attractive because it combines entertainment and thrills with comfort and security…we build up safe environments, where we no longer need to share the physical room with the underprivileged, where the more problematic aspects of reality are locked out”. (Fetveit, 1999).


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Reality TV had taken off in the mid-90s alongside the internet. Big Brother with its parallel universe did offer ‘reality’: we could even watch in real time, as housemates ate, slept, argued, got bored. It was transparent that the ‘action’ was created by the producers through various tasks and the viewing public understood how editing might show contestants in different light. But by the early 2000s a new kind of ‘scripted reality’ show began to blur the boundaries of reality and fiction, partly scripted and heavily edited: Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. We knew what we were watching was not all real but it was impossible to tell what was and what wasn’t. The boundaries between the real and the virtual had been decisively blurred.


above: Instagram feed of Louise Thompson, one of the cast of Made in Chelsea

Social media developed alongside this new scripted style of reality TV. Crucially, this meant that viewers could interact with this ‘reality’ – viewed on one screen – through updates, votes, tweets, comments – sent via another screen. The result was compelling: the ideal lives of the beautiful and privileged began to seep into our own world. This was no longer the set-up of an advertising shoot, something to aspire to, this was a new reality that we could be part of.


graphic to flip camera screen

The crucial element in this trajectory was the digital camera. By the mid 2000s cameras were integrated in most phones, and by 2010 had become standard. Now we were able to  insert ourselves in to this new reality and help build it ourselves. The moment we became able to flip the screen of our phone camera to take a selfie can be seen as equivilant to Lacan’s mirror phase for contemporary society. We flipped the screen, we looked in the mirror and we saw ourselves through the eyes of the world. More than ever we became subject to Lacan’s gaze: “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside”. (Lacan, 1966)

With this potent combination of digital photography and social media we could script our own structured reality.


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Social media invites us to present ourselves through images in such a way that we begin to experience our own life as others see it. The words of Louis Althusser ring true today as individuals are ‘hailed’ (to echo Althusser’s use of interpellation) to participate “in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject”. (Althusser, 1969)

Pierre Bourdieu, in his essay The Social Definition of Photography (first published in 1965) could be describing social media today when he described how the approach to photography reflected that of society: “… in which the social rules of behaviour and the moral code are more apparent than the feelings, desires or thoughts of individual subjects, in which social exchanges, strictly regulated by consecrated conventions are carried out under the constant fear of the judgement of others, under the watchful eye of opinion, ready to condemn in the name of norms which are unquestionable and unquestioned, and always dominated  by the need to give the best image of oneself, the image most in keeping with the ideal of dignity and honour“. (Bourdieu, 1965)


Each June as the lavender comes in to flower in Provence, future brides and grooms from around the world traipse into blue fields with photographer, make-up artist and stylist in tow. But this is not their real wedding. Their actual wedding may be two years away, but building the perfect virtual wedding takes time. We may consider that the dream of the ‘ideal wedding’ has its roots in fairy tales, Disney, Princess Diana, the Kardashians – a steady footpath has been beaten to the door of commerciality – but with the advent of social media we don’t need to be led by the hand anymore. We are feeding the machine ourselves; posting, liking, sharing images of ourselves, constantly upping the ante. All that counts is the image.

“Man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze”  (Lacan, 1966)

Whereas once we may have believed that the perfect dress would deliver the perfect wedding (and thus the perfect marriage), today the image is the perfect wedding.


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Social media has brought us full circle as overt, traditional advertising takes a back seat and we look to this new virtual world for our cultural and social values, where everyone can have their say. But it hasn’t taken long for the ‘authentic’ to be taken over by commerce. Ad agencies now refer to online ‘influencers’ who will build a loyal following and bring credibility to the brand. In an even greater irony ‘botting’ software is used to build the loyal following, hunting the internet 24/7 for potential followers, liking for a like back. As botting service provider Instagress once described its own service: “it’s like creating a small robot clone of yourself with the same interests and style, and then letting it work for you…” Our online lives are driven by ideologies perpetuated by images and we seek approval from ‘small robot clones’ of ourselves.


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Presenting an alternative virtual wedding has at the very least an actual wedding dress and actual field of lavender, but for those handy with Photoshop a referent is not required. Media theorist Dick Hebdidge echoes Baudrillard in his essay The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to The Face,  describing how first we lose the referent, then the signified, leaving us in a world of “empty signifiers, No meaning. No classes, No history. Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.”  (Hebdige, 1985). A world where the image no longer has any connection to reality. Bloggers have been exposed for faking illness (Belle Gibson), faking wellness (Jordan Younger). Travel photographs have been exposed as fake. Essena O’Neil bravely exposed the obsessive work and growing paranoia that went into creating each of her ‘casual’ posts. The more we look the more we are looked at. The gap between how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen grows wider with every effort to narrow it.

But perhaps more alarming than individual crisis is the effect virtual reality can have on our community, society, our global outlook.


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As our clicks and likes, shares and retweets are churned through an algorithm to bring us more of what we like, what doesn’t interest us is filtered out, our virtual reality is tailored to fit. We are sealed in our own personalised bubble. We can block communication from friends whose style or politics doesn’t match our own, we can even defriend them. News media have joined the online party – even the broadsheets are image-driven – serious news items sit alongside gossip, self-improvement, quizzes, top 10 lists, kittens. We can end up alienated, where even the virtual reality is not shared – the dream of an online global democracy lost – we are all individuals in our own hand-crafted reality, reflecting back at ourselves.

 above left to right: The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New York Times

News is brought to us in a way described by media theorist Dick Hebdidge as ‘horizontal’. Anyone can regurgitate a news item with their own slant, and if we like their slant, we can get more of the same.  (Incidentally predict an upturn in jobs for PR specialists of 23% and a downturn in jobs for reporters and correspondents of 8% (2010-2020). ). “Knowledge is assembled and dispensed to the public by a motley gang of bricoleurs, market researchers, pirates, adventureres, flaneurs and dandies” (Hebdige, 1985).


When photography was first invented it was considered a tool to provide visual evidence. In his paper on reality TV, Arild Fetvett studies the paradox that is the “digital revolution in photography and the proliferation of visual evidence”…”It seems as if we are experiencing a strengthening and a weakening of the credibility of photographical discourses at the same time”. This can be applied not only to reality TV, but especially to social media – at the same time that we acknowledge the malleability of digital photographs we put more and more value into those images. The volume of information available to us online means we are consuming information at breakneck speed, and as Roland Barthes noted back in 1964:”the hurried reader may be spared the boredom of verbal ‘descriptions’ which are entrusted to the image, that is to say a less ‘laborious’ system”. (Barthes, 1964). The Daily Mail now gives its ‘readers’ an option to receive the news via images alone – its ‘Just the Pictures’ offering delivers a constant stream of images:


As Hebdidge lamented, we ‘cruise’ images, picking up what is ‘useful’ or ‘appealing’, interpreting them as we choose. Meaning has become so fluid and images are so often repeated as to make reality “nothing more than the never knowable sum of all appearances” (Baudrillard cited in Hebdige, 1985)


image via the

The above photograph of bus seats was taken by Johan Slåttavik and shared with Fedrelandet viktigst (Fatherland First), a Norwegian anti-immigrant group whose members interpreted the image as a bus full of women wearing burqas. Comments on the post pointed to the ‘dangerous and frightening times we are living in’ .  A photo that is not of women in burqas tells us that Norway is living through dangerous and frightening times. The not real builds the not real.





Bangkok photographer Chompoo Baritone has created a series of images to highlight how easy it is to create images that feed the idea of the perfect body, house, diet etc, often inserting his model in to an exiting photograph. By simply stepping in to the image we can carry out the perfect Sirsasana headstand in an isolated spot of tranquil beauty.



image via

Garnering similar reactions to the ‘bus seat’ image above, alternative images later circulated (in liberal media) showing the same image a second later or from different angles and demonstrating that this woman was behaving no different from many others on the bridge at that moment. Here we see classic use of what Barthes terms ‘anchorage’ – in which the accompanying text controls the viewer’s response by guiding them to a certain interpretation.

While to many of the theorists mentioned in this essay the C20th had already lost its grip on reality, it seems grounded by comparison to the C21st, on the dawn of which we entered a new reality, no longer directed by advertising agencies or politicians, but by our own clicks and swipes.  The irony is that a rejection of social media feels like a missing out, a disconnectedness, while the rest of the world is turned away, staring in to the screen.

Lacan proposes that we can only find reality in death – for only death escapes representation – but it can also be found in nature, in making, in speaking aloud. Stepping away from the screen allows us to take our foot off the accelerator, to slow down our excessive consumption of images and search for true meaning in each, examing our beliefs and ideologies, being open to change.



Althusser, L. (1999). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture: a reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.317-323.

Barthes, R. (1999). Rhetoric of the Image. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture: a reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.33-40.

Bourdieu, P. (1999). The social definition of photography. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture: a reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.P162-180.

Debord, G. (1999). Separation Perfected. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.95-98. (2018). On the Social Media Ideology – Journal #75 September 2016 – e-flux. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].

Fairbanks, J. (2018). The dangers of ‘profile picture’ as presentation of self – EDGE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].

Fetveit, A. (1999). Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?. Media, Culture & Society, 21(6), pp.787-804.

Foster, H. (1996). The Return of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Accessed at

Gunelius, S. (2018). The History and Evolution of the Internet, Media, and News in 5 Infographics. [online] ACI. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].

Hebdige, D. (1999). The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to Evans. In: J. Evans and S. Hall, ed., Visual Culture: a reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp.99-124.

Howells, R. and Negreiros, J. (2014). Visual culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hypernormalisation. (2016). [film] Directed by A. Curtis. London: BBC.

Lacan, J. (1998). What is a Picture?. In: N. Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader, 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.126-128.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of looking. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.




project: buffy the freudian

Joss Whedon quite consciously incorporates both Freudian and Lacanian ideas into his scripts for the long-running TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the final episode of season4 there are a number of dream sequences, each of which can be seen as, in part, exemplifying one or more of the ideas of Freud or Lacan. Watch it and note as many ideological references as you can find. Makes notes as to how they manifest themselves.


Note: I have not watched this series, so my observations are based purely on this one episode. Images are screen grabs from film.

Dream One – Willow

Visual ideological references:

Willow painting on the back of another girl (partner?): A reference to Lacan’s symbolic order – a key developmental moment in which language and symbols come into play – a letting go of the id.10e3b2d3376bec0e89f2e698a29f31db

Kitten with no name – an infant with no identity – pre mirror phase. At the start of the dream there are several references to names – and finding out who the ‘real’ person is.

Audience – in school, at theatre: reference to Lacan’s gaze. Willow is being seen and she sees herself through the eyes of others.

Red curtains appear at the beginning in Willow’s room and on stage at the theatre. Willow draws the curtains open (to a bright, exposing light), backstage she is hidden in them and at one point a knife pierces them.fullsizeoutput_15db

Freud: curtains represent female genitalia. Knife that pierces curtains – male phallus. May be seen as succumbing to the male authority figure – again, Willow leaves infancy, discovers that her mother (and she) have no penis and consequently take their designated role in society.

Red curtains: Lacan’s screen (screen of symbols, language) through which the gaze is mediated. Could also represent Name of the Father – authority, society – what Willow must live with once she enters  the symbolic order. When Willow pulls curtains aside at start of dream sequence she sees ‘something’ out there – this is our first idea of the demon and cuts to the prowling kitten – both representative of things that have no name –  that can never be attained.

Demon that we never quite see: Lacan’s ideas on death – as reality – the only thing that can never be fully represented. Or potentially desire – Willow can never quite grasp this now she has left the real.

Lock on school locker that Willow is unable to open – struggles for identity (is this her locker?) or struggles to find answers.

Costume – backstage huge variety of classic dressing-up costumes – none relating to any one play. (Plenty of stereotypes – milkmaid, cowboy) Reference to Lacan and wearing of the mask – we are all playing a part.  Throughout the sequence Willow’s ‘costume’ is referred to. Dialogue tells us that the audience is full of everyone Willow has ever met and full of references to lying, subterfuge, playing a role, not being caught out.

Willow’s dream betrays a deep fear that she will be exposed for who she really is – that she is playing a part.  This fits Lacan’s theory on identity – that once we enter the symbolic order, we live only as others see us.

Dream Two – Xander

Visual ideological references:

Soldier (Apocalypse Now) in fatigues and rifle – male ideal. Men appear in fatigues and lab coats – positions of dominance and authority. Women in red or black with painted red nails – female idea, on display, available.

Freud: Xander expresses desire for mother (but not his? mother figure, Mrs Summers)  Goes to wee. Feels he is being watched (Lacan’s gaze),  becomes aware of men in fatigues and men in lab coats taking notes. fullsizeoutput_15d7Fearful of castration. Authority figures are all men. He is not yet a real man. To avoid castration he needs to become a man, identify with these men.

Freud: Regression – Playground with swings, sandpit, ice cream van – he is avoiding/confused about his own development. Xander is also in ice cream van, watching himself looking at Buffy (Lacan’s gaze – he has inserted himself in the picture)

Throughout this sequence there are plenty references to moving forward, Willow and Buffy are both ‘way ahead’ – Xander repeatedly finds himself back in a basement room (his bedroom?) where door is locked, but someone is trying to get in.

He can never reach what he wants – constant lack – Lacan – feelings of inferiority (Freud). He doesn’t get to Mrs Summers, he doesn’t get to the two girls. He is trying to move forward, but is always in a state of regression.

Apple – very conspicuously eaten by Giles – sign of knowledge, temptation, sin – potentially what Xander wants (to be like Giles), but can’t reach?

French – considered language of romance, love, sophistication – he is the only one that can’t speak it. Lacan – reference to the symbolic order – he does not have the maturity required to enter.

Freud – Oedipus Complex – a son will fear castration by father in response to his desire for mother. However he usually resolves this, by repressing his desires and becoming like his father. Xander’s dream sequence may be playing out this complex but what we see is Xander’s struggle to move forward – potentially because he does not want to identify with his father or these figures of machismo.

Dream Three – Giles

Visual ideological references

Shorter dream sequence and fewer visual references.

Watch – plenty of verbal references to time in dialogue – Giles is busy and running out of time. Towards end of sequence his stage sound falters, and he follows the microphone lead to a huge tangle of leads within which is his watch.

He appears as a father figure – funfair, pram

Buffy turns around wearing face mask – confusion of identity, does he know her?

“I wear the cheese, it does not wear me” – dialogue – suggesting that Giles wants to keep control?

Books, chronicles – signifying knowledge

When the creature catches up with Giles he resists looking at it – tries to control it with his mind – perhaps suggesting that to look at it is to believe in it, to render it real?

Dream Four – Buffy

Visual ideological references

Unmade bed/made bed – Buffy’s control is in flux


Freud – Oedipus Complex (female) – Buffy may be struggling just as Xander is. In her dream Buffy has trapped her mother within the walls of her school, confined and out of sight. Buffy has no intention of giving in to the patriarchy. fullsizeoutput_15d8She does not want to identify with her passive mother. This leads to the scene reminiscent of a ‘control centre’ where Buffy’s boyfriend and friend plan ‘world domination’. There is a gun (phallus) on the table. fullsizeoutput_15d9However the dialogue Buffy plays out in this scene, renders the men inactive – with talk of filing and ‘giving things names’ (though the naming of things may be seen by Lacan as – men as head of society). Is she rejecting penis envy, rejecting her role as typical female in society?


Cherries on Buffy’s dress – sign of moving on, development, maturity. A plucked cherry – loss of innocence.

Buffy covers her face with mud – camouflage? going to battle? mask? We can question our own ideologies – do we see this as beauty mask or camouflage?

In meeting with the first slayer, the dialogue points directly to Lacan : “I have no speech, no name, I live in the action of death” This is how Lacan refers to death – it cannot be represented – it is the only reality. Buffy is struggling to get back to her reality, to take control from death.

fullsizeoutput_15daTowards the end of the dream sequence we see the forces of good and evil fight in the desert – as ever it seems, represented by black and white. Additionally the first slayer (black) is represented by a white woman. While this could be read as ideology the script implies that this first slayer goes back to the beginning of time, and modern humans are presumed to have been black.




project: being and its semblance

Read Chapter 10, What is a Picture? by Jacques Lacan in the book The Visual Culture Reader by N Mirzeoff.

Earlier in the course we looked at Lacan and the mirror phase in which he described the moment an infant realises that it is a subject. Before this transformation we don’t realise that we are our own separate being. Unaware of our own existence, we are the gaze. Once we understand this, we can no longer gaze, only look, because everything is now an interaction.

Specifically in this text, Lacan uses the term objet a to mean lack of desire but I cannot pretend to understand his equation or why he needs to use it to express himself. Reading around the text I understand that desire is something that can never be reached – it is in Lacan’s term “evanescent” and yet we will always desire, because we will always feel a sense of lack.

Lacan uses a diagram of overlapping triangles to show how once our field of vision pointed outwards to the object we gazed at, however now we are in the field of vision of the gaze.

The gaze, once we are past the mirror phase is something that we now feel, rather than act ourselves. And it is the subject of our desire that is gazing back at us, looking at it: “…in the sceptic field, the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture”. This is how our ego develops – it is acquired through the gaze. “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside.” We see ourselves as other see us.

That gaze travels via a screen – and it is the screen that determines who we are. The screen is essentially a screen of signs and through it we create our mask.

The only time the gaze breaks down is in ‘sexual union and the struggle to the death”: “In both situations, the being breaks up, in an extraordinary way, between its being and its semblance, between itself and that paper tiger it shows to the other” P127

Lacan implies however that we know what we are doing – “in so far as he isolates the function of the screen and plays with it…..The screen is here the locus of mediation” . P128

(Note to self: This seems essentially to be our conscious self? We are conscious that we exist – is this not the gaze?)


Look up Schrödinger’s cat. Make a brief summary of the theory.


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This theory was developed by Schrödinger to show how a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics was flawed when put into practice.  Since this, the theory has become a way of illustrating different approaches available.

A cat is in a box and with a 50% chance of a deadly poison leak inside the box.  We don’t know if the cat is alive or dead until we open the box to look inside. We could say that the cat is alive AND dead until we open the box to look at the cat. Thus we could conclude that it is our action of looking that renders the cat to be alive or dead. It’s our act of looking that forces an outcome – the ‘collapsing’ of nature to one reality.

This can lead us to ask that if it’s our looking that forces the outcome of a dead or alive cat, then who is looking at us? One thought is that both outcomes happen in parallel – that there are multiple universes.


Read the chapter The Subject on paps 340-355 of the course reader making your notes in the usual way.

Kaja Silverman takes us through Lacan’s theory of the subject: birth, territorialisation, mirror stage, language, Oedipus complex. The final two – language and Oedipus complex being to Lacan’s ‘symbolic order’, and “mark the subject’s coming of age within culture“. P341

The idea of a loss or lack is involved in each of these stages as defined by Lacan. We begin as a whole androgynous being but become divided or ‘reduced’ to either man or woman – thus determining our social identity. According to Lacan, the only way to resolve the loss caused by this division is through heterosexual union – with a union we can recover our wholeness.

The first loss is separation of infant from mother at birth – this becomes a moment of sexual differentiation. The second loss is at a time termed ‘territorialisation’ – when the infant goes from being ‘at one’ with its surroundings to discovering its own sources of pleasure (mouth, anus, penis, vagina). Here is one of the clearest examples of ‘lack’ –  the breast in the mouth gives pleasure and is felt to be part of the infant, when it is taken away there is a loss, a lack.

Objects such as the breast are termed by Lacan as ‘objets petit autre’ (object a). They are  “objects which are not clearly distinguished from the self and which are not fully grapsed as other” P343. The value of objet a is derived from its “identification with the missing piece of the subject’s self” .

Lacan refers to three orders of the psyche: Imaginary, Symbolic, Real. The first two work together, the Imaginary order is when the mirror stage occurs, and the Symbolic is about the acquisition of language.

Silverman points out that the mirror stage resembles what happens during territorialisation, in terms of loss. As the infant realises that it is a subject in itself, and no longer part of the ‘other’ it senses the same sense of lack, “since to know oneself through an external image is to be defined through self-alienation” P344.

It’s noted that cinema often builds on this, using “the same sorts of identifications which occur early in the subject’s life, and within which absence plays the same structuring role” P344

Silverman clarifies that the infant’s identity is socially determined from the very beginning – though it isn’t always clear in Lacan’s writings – that is that society plays a part from the beginning, whether via the parent or environment.

As we move on to look at the acquisition of language within the Symbolic order, we are reminded that according the Lacan a symbol needs to link to another symbol in order to gain meaning. On its own it is empty: “Lacan thus denies the possibility of meaning inhering in any isolated unit, attributing signifying capabilities only to the discursive complex” P346

For Lacan, it is impossible for us to know what is real, because any signifier is inherently attached to another, and will have meaning attached to it depending on society and culture. “For Lacan, the definitive criterion of a signifier is that it abandon all relation to the real, and take up residence within a closed field of meaning…” and because this is the world and infant enters into “it is entirely contained within a network of signification” P346

Silverman summarises: “language isolates the subject from the real, confining it forever to the realm of signification“. P347. Furthermore, once the infant enters the symbolic order, its ‘being’, or basic impulses, become impossible to satisfy.

“With the subject’s entry into the symbolic order it is reduced to the status of a signifier in the field of the Other”. According to Lacan, the symbolic order influences both conscious and unconscious thus even the desires of the unconscious are “those of an already constituted social order”. p347

Silverman summarises thus far what Lacan associates with the development of the subject: “…inauguration of meaning, the loss of the real, the formation of the unconscious, the entry into the symbolic…” P350

The final piece of development is the birth of desire. Desire stems from the sense of loss, the search for completeness. It comes about when the infant realises it is not part of the other, and when it experiences the alienation of the mirror stage. “It is thus the product of the divisions by means of which the subject is constituted, divisions which inspire in the subject a profound sense of lack” P350

Desire is impossible to fulfil according to Lacan: the infant is faced with ideal representations that it can never reach. These stem from its experience in the mirror phase, its entry in to the symbolic order and finally its experience of mother and father representations – which lead via the Oedipus complex to the sense of castration. Lacan believes desire to be narcissistic – the only reason we desire someone else is to feel complete ourselves.

Our world of symbols (language) is what causes the feeling of loss within us, and it continues to be how we measure our loss – we are surrounded by representations – “representations which structure every moment of our existence – not only to discover what we are, but what we can never hope to be and (as a consequence) desire.” P350 In other words, it is our society and culture that both creates the initial feeling of loss and then sets up the desire.

Lacan has shown us the role that language plays in the development of the unconscious, the subject and the symbolic order. He then sets out to explain how the Oedipus complex and language are identical.  For Lacan the positions within a family are  symbolic – each position gets its meaning through its connection to another within the family – so standing alone they are empty, they have no reference to the real.

With this in mind, Lacan’s version of the Oedipus complex differs from Freud’s. A child will confuse its parents with their symbolic representations which can only lead to feelings of lack and inadequacy down the line. Through this process the child identifies with the same sex parent.

Unlike Freud, Lacan uses the term phallus (not like Freud to refer to the actual penis) to refer to all values that are lacking: i.e., that which made the subject feel whole at one time (before it entered the symbolic order). He also uses the term to refer to “paternal power and potency” within the patriarch. (Lacan also uses terms ‘symbolic father’ and Name-of-the-Father).

However just as a real father can never live up to all that the symbolic father represents, nor can an actual penis approximate the phallus (“signifier for the cultural privileges and positive values which define male subjectivity within patriarchal society” P353).

However this doesn’t change the cultural order because in fact it is is our institutional supports (legal, medical, religious, educational, economic) that keep it going. However Silverman goes on to point out that the desire of the son is also necessary to keep the symbolic order in place. The son must believe his father to be in possession of the phallus and identify the actual father with the symbolic father. In this closed system of symbols, the father has the phallus, so the mother must lack it and it is her desire which leaves the son wishing to supply her with the missing phallus. So despite Lacan declaring that the phallus is not the actual penis, it does seem as though the two are linked...”Lacan suggests that the male subject ‘pays’ for his symbolic privileges with a currency not available to the female subject – that he ‘mortgages’ the penis for the phallus” P353 Silverman points out how Lacan contradicts himself in this area, and particularly when taking about the female subject.









project: ecclesiastes misquoted

Read the extract from Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulations (P145 The Visual Culture Reader edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff), and make notes.

Jean Baudrillard in Paris, Januar 1986

photo via

Baudrillard begins with reference to a story by Jorge Luis Borges about what Baudrillard describes as “the finest allegory of simulation“. In this short story cartographers were so keen to accurately represent the empire that they ended up drawing a map of scale 1:1. He terms this a second-order simulacra, whereby the representation is done so exactly that there is a danger it may be taken for the real thing.

Writing in 1981, Baudrillard declares that this second-order simulacra offers nothing but “discrete charm” for now we live in a time of the hyperreal, where a copy has no original.

According to Baudrillard, if Borges’s story were rewritten for today, the map would “precede the territory” and it is the territory that shrivels as the map becomes the real. However the situation is worse than this, and Baudrillard declares even this revised version of the story “useless”. For in the story we can still differentiate between the real and the copy. This is still a story about a representational image. Today there was never any real, at any time: “No more mirror of being and appearances of the real and its concept…” The real is simply made up. It is made up and reproduced indefinitely.

As the real and the truth are no longer relevant (we are in a time where all referential are ‘liquidated’), the new ‘reality’ is created simply by signs – there is no signified. Signs are so much more useful in what he terms a ‘system of death’  than meaning. They can say whatever we want them to say.

Images were once about reproduction and representation, but today it is all about simulation – “never again will the real have to be produced“.

Watch Blade Runner, the director’s or final cut rather than the cinema release version. Is Deckard human or a replicant? Make notes as to he reasons for your conclusion. What are the visual clues?


Hard to know whether this film is deliberately ambiguous about the character of Deckard for through most of the film the visual clues either way are slight.  Through the dialogue we are given clear things to look out for in differentiating human from replicant: the physical signs of a human emotional response such as dilated pupils and flushing skin while the escaped Nexus 6 replicants show super-strength and experience no pain.

Decker’s own emotions are certainly kept in check, but this isn’t unusual for a role played by Harrison Ford – and no doubt we bring with us to the film a partly-formed character based on his low-key, laconic style. However there is a sense that he is is puzzled in certain situations – perhaps he is trying to make sense of the emotions building within him? On the other hand while he is intelligent enough to have created and operate a system to identify replicants, he doesn’t share their physical attributes. blade_runner___rachel_by_maxhitman-d39c7r5

A repeated sign of a replicant throughout the film is the glowing eye – a specific filming technique used to create the illusion that the reflection in the eye briefly shifts to a glow. This can be seen in Decker’s eyes, but at just one brief moment, and not as obviously as with other known replicants.

We learn that it takes time for a replicant to build up emotions, and to help them function they are ‘gifted’ a past, through memories and a stash of photographs. It is through this that we see the strongest visual clues that Deckard may not be human. In his apartment he has a huge number of photographs. They are not framed and static on the walls, but available for him to handle and look over. Of course this may be that he has lost his family and wants to feel close to them. c30a27674d545942d23e388b2008e837--harrison-ford-blade-runnerHowever we’ve already seen Rachel learn (through Deckard) that her precious family photograph has been planted so we are wise to the possibility that Deckerd’s are too. Is this why Deckard pours over these images? Is this how he confirms his identity as a human? Through these photographs he can create a memory and a past, he can dare to believe he is human for how can he ever know for sure?

The most obvious visual clue however (only partly evident in the cinema release version) is the appearance of a unicorn. In the quiet moment when Deckard is clearly thinking about his past – at his piano surrounded by photographs and music – he falls asleep and we cut to a dream-like sequence of a unicorn. blade_runner_unicornWe assume this is his dream, though it appears unconnected to anything we know of Deckard and does not relate to his life as we know it. It is a random image of a mythical creature. The connecting clue to Decker’s identity comes at the very end of the film. As Deckard and Rachel leave his apartment they come across a tiny origami unicorn on the floor. At two other points in the film Gaff (a fellow Blade Runner) has left an origami figure in his wake (chicken and matchstick man) – a sign that he was present – and possibly a message to Deckard.


But this final message is the most disturbing.  There is only one way that Gaff would know about the unicorn of Deckard’s dreams – if that image had been planted there – and did not originate with Deckard himself.

A unicorn has many meanings but is perhaps most frequently associated with purity and innocence. Is this a double hit from Gaff – telling Deckard he is replicant and pointing out his innocence of that fact at the same time? Or perhaps he is simply equating Deckard with something ‘other’ and ‘unreal’.

Watch The Matrix. Make notes as to how far the ideas of the simulacrum inform the film.


The ideas of the simulacrum inform this film to an extent, but not completely. In this film the real and the non-real exist alongside each other. There is a way in and out. And of course our hero promises to deliver humankind back to reality in a sequel somewhere down the line.

Right from the beginning of The Matrix we’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. We repeatedly see Neo waking up and like him, we’re not sure if his experiences are in his dream or while he’s awake. The white rabbit tattoo – a nod to Alice in Wonderland –  is the first clue of an alternative reality.

It soon becomes clear that Neo is living in a simulated reality – the matrix – it is all just code. This fits well with Baudrillard’s description “The real is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models”.  We see people going about their business but it is only their minds ‘experiencing’ this ‘life’. Their bodies are locked up in a horrific storage system and used as an energy source. B000HAB4KS_thematrix_UXWB1._RI_SX940_Artificial Intelligence is in control. Why they bother with the matrix is questionable but of course this is why the film is interesting. The matrix is how the human mass is kept content by the powers that be.

There are a couple of very direct references to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Right at the beginning of the film, when all we know of Neo is that he sells software on a blEj4Rh6nack market, we see him using a hollowed-out copy of the book as a hiding place.It’s an interesting plant – the key to his understanding that he is not in a real world hidden inside a book about exactly that.

In the extract we are given to read for this course it’s not clear whether Baudrillard believes all society complicit in the simulacra. He refers to ‘present-day simulators’ and reading around this it does appear an extension of DeBord’s idea of the spectacle has created the simulacra – the media, the state. MatrixpillWhile the humans in The Matrix appear forcibly kept in their stacked pods and Neo is singled out and offered the chance to take the red pill – to opt out of the matrix – we might assume that every being actually has the opportunity to take the red pill. But they choose the blue – as demonstrated by the Cypher’s betrayal- for they prefer the ‘controlled’ reality.

The second direct reference to Baudrillard comes when Morpheus shows Neo what has happened to reality. main-qimg-18136dc3d12d20baa6b0389c49ac1f5dThe reality he thought he was living in is in ruins: “welcome to the desert of the real”. This is the key difference; in The Matrix there exists the possibility to take the red pill, to see reality, to see the difference, to move in and out of the simulacra. For Baudrillard “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none”.


And of course the irony is that the idea of this possibility is delivered to us via a blockbuster movie.


project: illusion only is sacred, truth profane

Re-read the chapter by Guy Debord, Separation Perfected on pps 95 – 98 of the course reader making your notes in the usual way



Extraordinary to think that these words had already been written in 1967: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation”. P95  Debord describes how the illusion presented by images had become (at the time of writing) more important than the real thing, the real experience and more than that – it is though images that we negotiate each other: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” P95 Debord’s ‘spectacle’ is more than just a huge number of images (because that was a recent development), but it had become our world vision and the “heart of the unrealism of the real society.” P96

Debord explains that we can’t simply hold the spectacle up against ‘real’ life – the two feed off each other “Every notion fixed this way has no other basis than its passage into the  opposite”  P96 and this is why we can no longer identify what is ‘real’ anymore – there is no true ‘real’…“reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real” P96

Because the monopoly the spectacle holds, it is accepted without question, and with its ubiquitous presence in production and communication it has become “the main production of present-day society” P96 and put man on a hamster wheel of consumption : “It is no more than the economy developing for itself.” P97

The spectacle does not communicate directly but through “means of various specialised mediations” P97 – that is through codes and connotation – “the sign to the thing signified” P95 and most dauntingly “It is the opposite of dialogue” .

Debord goes on to compare the power of the spectacle over man with the power of religion – something that could not be beaten by philosophy, the power of separate thought. We no longer think clearly, even “the most earthly life becomes opaque and unbreathable”, we have cut ourselves off from our ability to think for ourselves – this is what is described as ‘separation perfected’. P97

Debord reminds us that this spectacle may appear as an accessory to the way we live our lives but is actually the driving force. Again he reminds us that this is not a dialogue, that communication is essentially one-sided and because the spectacle is so all-pervasive (and is now our reality), it will ever be thus. The spectacle is now part of the modern ‘State’ and consequently will continue class division.

We are in a never-ending cycle of justification of the production, choice and consumption of stuff though the spectacle has weaved itself into more than just our consuming self. It guides how we think and thus our beliefs and ideologies.

Look for three examples of current advertising that sells by appeal to lifestyle rather than the virtues of the product itself and make notes to show how.



Mini certainly runs campaigns around the attributes of the car itself – focusing mainly around a ‘tiny but tough’ message.  Its advertising has also used a heady combination of nostalgia and patriotism, borrowing back from The Italian Job, the union jack, the ubiquitous ‘keep calm’ poster. But it also works hard to position itself as the car that delivers a certain lifestyle: young, fun, and with a good dose of cheek, of going against the grain. The car is often photographed as dusk/dawn in the countryside or at nighttime in the city, a sense that this is a car for adventures rather than to get to Tesco, drive to work, or pick up the kids from school.

mini_wanderlust_2Mini’s interactive Wanderlust campaign used images of surfing: no other sport represents freedom quite like surfing. We see minis lined up at dusk, surfers checking the waves, there is a feeling of camaraderie, of shared adventure ahead. mini_wanderlust_1


The light is dim, the product is barely lit, this is all about the life of the mini driver and nothing about the car.



Reinforcing the online Wanderlust campaign outdoor posters inject humour and a mini appears to have driven off with the surfboard of a surfer in an adjacent advertisement.


Other campaigns use text alongside the image to reinforce the message. In these two online ads the scene is nighttime. 219247e0abdaab64fc9d0b05df3523cfThis is not the lifestyle of someone at home for dinner, TV and bed.


This life is more exciting, here we see a private view in a trendy part of town, we see friends stopping for spontaneous fun.

And some campaigns use one simple image with different headlines. Still absolutely no detail about the car, this is all about lifestyle – the double entendre of a dirty weekend, 1437958488732and again, underlining Mini’s positioning as cheeky, running against the grain – even though it is fundamentally metal on wheels, a car.


Ownership of this car comes with a lust for life, a sense of fun, an unwillingness to toe the line – ironic really, considering that anyone who buys in to this is clearly following the rules and behaving just as required.

Ralph Lauren


I came across the above ad in a french fashion magazine. It’s in black and white and the clothes are barely seen. The magazine targets young women – yet we see no women’s clothing. The caption loosely translates as “Life is my inspiration. A chance to enjoy every moment”. The scene is of an outdoor adventure, Mr Lauren himself at the wheel, we assume with his family. His cowboy hat and jeep represents the wholesome American outdoor life, the family are healthy and windswept. Here is the ideal family participating in the ideal pastime – spending time together, outdoors.

A quick search for other Ralph Lauren ads reveal a heavy emphasis on an idealised American upper class lifestyle with a big dose of nostalgia, a touch of eccentricity. A sense of old money, and a look back to the 1920s (when most of the money was made…). Images are littered with antiques, vintage cars and yachts and staged in vast country estates. The American version of Brideshead.ralph-lauren-1

Models are often grouped together, if not as families, as distinct groups, giving the sense of private membership. And of course the strongest message is that if you buy these clothes, you can join the club.



The group look out at us, expectant, waiting for us to run across and join their wonderful and privileged life.



Patek Philippe


On the back page of what feels like every copy of The Week, I see this brand’s advertisements regularly. They predominately feature father and son, sometimes with grandfather too, occasionally mother and daughter. The models are handsome, dressed in a typically upper class european way (I want to say EuroTrash, if that term still exists?!): cashmere sweaters, crisp shirts, jackets, loafers.

p8These men are in control of their lives, they work – we see them dressed for business, or even at a desk – yet they have the time to bond with their sons. They take them sailing, they play at trains, they take them boating, play chess, they even help with homework. Noticeably the mothers spend time blowing dandelions or bubbles with their daughters, or just hugging.

A large part of this advertising is about class and the lineage that comes with that: the titles, the property, the heirlooms. These gorgeous families have it all, and they are doing the right thing by their kids.

Buy the watch and you create an instant heirloom. If you invest in this watch, you are investing in your child. Another irony – that for the price of these watches, most parents will have to work their socks off – leaving less time to much about with their kids.

Find advertisements for products that have been in production since before the second world war (Coca Cola or Bovril for example), in the Modernist period and today, and annotate them to show how, or if, there has been a change from product to lifestyle as the selling point.

Wrangler Jeans



Wrangler started out using endorsement by cowboys in their ads though most of the copy is dedicated to talking about the fit, quality and low cost. They make a brief nod to lifestyle by suggesting their jeans are good for both rugged ranch work and suburban loafing…






In the late C20th the focus moves to lifestyle but through the idea of the particular cut of the jean helping its wearer to have an active life. Three different styles of jean are shown and named. The small print tells us what sizes the jeans are available in. While the headline is about lifestyle – live life to the limit – the subhead focuses on the different styles of jean available ‘A Fit for Every-Body’.




wrangler_wrongler_0010_4_aotwAbove: one of the most recent campaigns (from 2015) and there is no reference whatsoever to the product. We can’t even really make out what the model is wearing. This is pure lifestyle, for those that aspire to take the less-travelled path, to be in control of their own life, to get away from the pack.

(Note: it was interesting to take a look at the past few years of advertising for Wrangler – the brand image has taken frequent changes in direction, there seems to be very little consistency)


As with Wrangler, Gibson soften used endorsement to sell their guitars. 53_Les-Paul-Mary-FordAds featured musicians clutching their Gibson guitars and/or extensive copy about the product itself, in some cases with full specification and the price.58_flying-v-and-335







In the 60’s and 70’s the focus moved towards what the equipment said about the musician. Detail a


bout the product could still be found in the small print but the image began to say more


than the words, signifying an underground coolness, rebelliousness and definitely not middle-of-the-road or in the case of the folk guitar the free spirit.



In the C21st Gibson’s ads say absolutely nothing about the product. While some have a catchy one-liner, others rely purely on image. The message couldn’t be clearer: these guitars are all about the archetypal rock and roll lifestyle: