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"The look," also translated as "the gaze," refers to the activity of intentionally directing one's vision toward something. It implies the anticipation of an image and a narrowing of the visual field.

With his prior experience with the gaze in hypnosis and with his invention of the analytic couch, Freud showed that he was acutely aware of the important axis that ran from the eye of the analyst to the look of the analysand and of the perceptual asymmetry that resulted from it. He openly declared that he could not bear to spend his entire working day being stared at by the patients he was treating. Contrary to Jean Martin Charcot, he dispensed with the omnipotent look in treatment and even came to consider it a kind of mistake. By characterizing the look as an element of the scopic drive, he opened the way to a series of reflections preserved in his metapsychology, most notably, his study of the voyeur/exhibitionist opposition.

Referring to the "split" between the look and vision, Jacques Lacan, following up on his work with the optical schema of the inverted bouquet as reflected in a mirror, made the look the object of the scopic drive, developing a theory that "most completely eludes the term castration" (Lacan, p. 78). In neurosis, the other's look is most often experienced by the subject with an "uncanny" feeling. In psychosis, the look can amount to persecution leading to a breakdown if it comes to be confused with its source, the eye. And finally, the look, focused on sex, plays an essential role in the genealogy of perversions.

What does "the look" look for? And what is looked at? For Lacan, the phallus is what is looked for, and castration is what is found. The phallic reaction, in the form of erection or a petrified look, is a response to fear of castration. For the subject, the scopic drive is expressed by the appearance or disappearance of the look. From that point on, the subject will use what is supposedly the other's look to construct the fantasy of castration and to make that fantasy seem possible: "I see from only one point," Lacan said, "but in my existence I am looked at from all sides" (1978, p. 72). The myth of Medusa shows that individuals use protective images to try to defend themselves against erection or petrifaction by the other's look.

Donald Winnicott, in his reflections on why the baby's look turns toward the mother's face, and Fran-çoise Dolto, by insisting that the look plays an important role in symbolizing the difference between boys and girls, both emphasized the structuring role of visual activity. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, psychoanalytic research attempts to draw a distinction between the drives of seeing and looking. In the treatment of perversions, the field of the look is considered in its relation to speech. The look thus constitutes an organizational schema for the person, as is shown by its overdetermination in various cultures in ways that cut across the fields of the visible and the invisible, such as the "evil eye," a voracious invidious look.

Jean-Michel Hirt

See also: Breastfeeding; Cinema criticism; Face-to-face situation; Fascination; Hypnosis; Identificatory project; Mirror stage; Modesty; Object a ; Optical schema; Psychoanalytic treatment; Psychogenic blindness; Relaxation psychotherapy; Reversal into the opposite; Self-consciousness; Visual; Visual arts and psychoanalysis; Voyeurism.


Dolto, Françoise. (1984). L'image inconsciente du corps. Paris: Seuil.

Hirt, Jean-Michel. (1993). Le miroir du prophète: Psychanalyse et Islam. Paris: Grasset.

Lacan, Jacques. (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 9: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1964)

Winnicott, Donald. (1989). Mirror-role of mother and family in child development. In his Playing and reality. New York: Routledge.