La afinidad del semblante y el fantasma I Rodolfo Biscia I 2014

What Lacan called semblant and what everyone refers to as “phantasm” are allied figures. Whether they seduce us or unsettle us, in either case we are interpellated by them. They complement each other in an ambiguous point: everything we look at simultaneously looks back at us. They immediately articulate antagonistic possibilities: pleasure or unease; jouissance or the traumatic encounter with the real. Two already classic texts explore the scope and paradoxes of this experience of watching-being-seen. On the one hand, there are the prophetic essays by Walter Benjamin that Georges Didi-Huberman drew on when writing a philosophical fable about the dialectic of the visual experience; on the other, the Lacanian phenomenology of the gaze that Hal Foster utilized, somewhat excessively, to map out contemporary art.

“The point of the gaze always participates in the ambiguity of the jewel”, we read in an incisive paragraph from Lacan. The Lacanian subject finds himself held captive in a deceptive position: when observing anything he irredeemably falls under the inert gaze – that at the same time is miraculously alive – of this object. The subject gets lost in this trap: “In the scopic drive, the subject encounters the world as a spectacle that possesses him. There, one is the victim of a lure.” And also: “The spectacle captures the subject, who delights, who rejoices. He believes he desires because he sees himself as desired and doesn’t see that what the Other wants is to obtain his gaze”.

Under the form of an indefatigable drive, the vision breathes and maneuvers in a constellation of semblants. Could the semblant be the mask that truth wears to hide the fact that without it, its nucleus is vague and unsubstantial? Platonic metaphysics, always ready to separate being from appearance and to reject the idea that the truth possesses a fictional structure, are held radically distant from this logic. The human being, despite being equipped with language, is condemned to the semblant. It is a result of this condemnation that Lacan started to consider the question of whether there could be a discourse – including a psychoanalytic discourse – separate from the semblant.

On the other hand, if nature itself is bestowed with semblants, how much more so is capitalist society, this second nature that, in thousands of ways, seduces us with simulacra of faces? The idol – so much the pop star as the diva, not least the forever anonymous model in any advertisement – is, above all, an eidolon: an image. Is it necessary to add that it is an image that also looks at us at the moment we observe it? The society of spectacle dazzles us with its procession of simulacra, but only through the interpretation of the semblants can we begin to arrive at a precarious certainty of not being deceived. Balzac, who was a fine prophet and a passionate analyst of nascent capitalism, didn’t stop to diagnose, as Rousseau did, the social divorce between appearing and being: he went even further and memorably wrote in one of his novels that “the semblant costs just as much real.”

The phantasm also ends up being just as onerous as the real. We can consider this mental zone where the pleasure principle, with the purpose of making reality bearable, erects its own sanctuary. But it is known that the place where we dream awake easily degenerates into the theatre of hallucination or nightmare. What Lacan exacerbated from Freudian intuitions about the phantasm, deconstructionism later reworked through a meditation focused on spectres. It was not in vain that Jacques Derrida recovered, in an inhospitable context, the figure of Marx as a true living-dead who would continue to haunt Europe. Going further in this line, he highlights the tenacity with which the metaphors of spectrality accompany both Marxist metaphysics of merchandise and the critical anatomy of capitalist society.

It is evident that, in addition to having a logic, there is an economy of spectres: unpaid debts and massive capital created from pure phantasmagoria. In another one of his novels, Balzac imagines how Napoleon would have locked up on grounds of insanity, any man who, like Daguerre, had affirmed his power of fixing the representation of an image and of capturing the perceptible spectre of objects. Two centuries later, Raymond Bellour ventures, in turn, that all the contemporary photography that cultivates an artistic value in the systematic blurring of the image came to settle – nothing less – this Balzaquian debt of the phantasm: “The 19th century, which believed in spirits, believed in this spectral double: the unprecedented novelty of the photograph had become its guarantor”. Photography as an art would have never stopped paying, through the effects of haze and the recognition of blurry and out of focus zones, that debt of the phantasm that lurks in its origins. But the primordial debt of the spectre is also paid for by pictorial works which, as in the case of Gerhard Richter, blur with technical mastery in order to better facilitate seeing – or to facilitate seeing something else; just as a certain art of appropriation is dedicated to winnowing the glittery imagery of mass media to salvage something, even if only a ghostly form, from the shipwreck.

The image seduces under the figure of the semblant – like a jewel, a face, an eidolon, or extremely restless like a phantasm – riding unsteadily on the threshold of the visible and the invisible. In the manner of a profane trinity, the semblant and the phantasm add to the enigmatic merchandise that at times interpellates us from a shaking mirage. It is such the case with an advertising image that, in the process of disappearing, glints on the edge of the perceptible. It is as if the Barthesian punctum, dissolved in spectrality, was to acquire the ability to become ubiquitous. Here we reencounter one of the least remembered aspects from the widely discussed notion of the aura: “To perceive the aura of an object we look at”, as Benjamin knew, “means to invest in it the capacity to look back at us”. One mustn’t forget that an essential characteristic of the aura comes from the power of the gaze that is lent to the observed object by the observer: with this coming and going of redundancies we skim the subtle phantasmatic character of all visual experience.Ones passes through the aura just like one passes through a ghost or the essential lie of the semblant. However, upon leaving the glitter behind, we find at the core of any particular thing a memento mori. Ultimately, the profusion of semblants that seethe in the bazaar of capitalism converges in an abysmal point: that of contemporary vanitas. The affinity between the semblant and the phantasm resides in the fact that, despite their seduction, sooner or later, both end up being related to death: either evoking, conjuring or maniacally denying it.

Arta Magazine, May, 2014

© Luciana Rondolini 2021

© Luciana Rondolini 2021