On Seeing Yourself on a Big Screen

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These days, many large sporting events and concerts feature a big screen on which the audience can watch the action or performance as it is taking place, expanded to vast proportions. This footage may also be transmitted to a television audience, as during Wimbledon or Glastonbury festival. It often happens during these events that the camera is turned on the audience, perhaps during a break in play, to film the crowd, or pick out one or two unsuspecting individuals. On such occasions something seems to take place which Lacan has described in the following terms: ‘I see myself seeing myself’. We recognise ourselves on the screen, and at the same time recognise that we are outside this image, looking at it. We might respond by waving, smiling, laughing or hiding, as our inclination dictates. For Lacan, this idea of ‘seeing oneself seeing oneself’ is a way of describing what is usually referred to as self-consciousness: the ability we seem to have to reflect back upon our own perceptions. Self-consciousness produces the impression that I am in control of these perceptions, since my recognition that I am seeing is simultaneously a recognition that someone is doing the recognising, and that this is me. In Lacan’s words, ‘The privilege of the subject seems to be established here from that bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me’.

Lacan argues that this impression is mistaken though, introducing instead the concept of the ‘gaze’ (see this). The gaze is a point of vision which originates from outside, and which sees me before I see it. This means that I am not, in fact, the author of my own perceptions. The structure of the gaze can be illustrated by the phenomenon of the ‘double take’, often played for comedic effect in slapstick or cartoon films. This occurs when someone initially looks past something which seems innocuous, before suddenly looking back as they realise something is radically amiss. Rather than me doing the seeing, something has caught my eye, reversing the conventional direction of visual agency. In comedy, the audience is usually allowed to recognise immediately what the character misses, reinstating the sense that vision is rooted in the subject — just not the subject who double takes. If I am the person doing a double take, however, the unexpected sight catches me before I am able to assert my privilege as the subject of my own perceptions. Like a joke or slip of the tongue for Freud, it is a moment which reveals the existence of something outside my control, which nonetheless determines my subjectivity.

Seeing yourself on the big screen operates in a similar way: when the camera picks me out, for a split second I fail to react, either because I am not expecting to see myself, or because there is a slight delay between the camera filming me and the image appearing on the screen. What I see, therefore, and what everyone else in the crowd sees, is my own moment of recognition, in which mastery over my image is reasserted. As with comedy, the audience — and even I myself — are able to catch the moment in which I fail to be the author of my own vision. In recognising this moment, agency is restored, or seems to be restored. A failure to recognise myself would be another matter; for Freud, this would be a form of the uncanny.

Self-consciousness, then, always works to elide the existence of the gaze and reassert the authority of the subject. There is a disjunction, though, in the experience of seeing yourself on a big screen which cannot be elided, and which always renders it slightly unsatisfactory. The camera and the screen are not identical, so that in seeing myself I cannot catch my own eye as I can in a mirror. I am faced with the choice of looking directly at the camera (the point which stands for my self-recognising self), in which case I cannot see my image on the screen, or of looking at the screen, in which case I cannot meet my own gaze. In this second case, the point my image-self seems to be looking at, which is off to the side, is the point where I want to be in order to catch my own gaze. To reach this point while still looking at the screen would be the equivalent of looking at Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors head on, while also being in a position to see clearly the anamorphic skull. In order to unify my subjectivity and close this gap, I would have to split myself in two. This moment does not last however. The camera moves on, the game re-commences and I can imagine that I really did see myself seeing myself.

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