José Esteban Muñoz's 1996 essay “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts” famously closes with a polemic insisting that we think queerness through “acts, not identities.” Muñoz's queer acts work to “displace the tyranny of identity,” turning away from biological, ontologized, and essentialist conceptions of identity to focus on “what a queer act does, performatively and, in turn, socially” rather “than what it might mean.”1
When I read Muñoz with my undergraduate students in a media theory and criticism course last semester, his conclusion came as a revelation to them. Intrigued but confused by Muñoz's queer act, this articulation of queerness enlivened for them a possibility for coalitional politics that the individuating identities so critical to their social signification seemed to have foreclosed. This brought into relief what a hold identity has, not just on them but at this moment in time.2
I start here because this moment prompted me to reflect on how, in the same seminar just a few weeks earlier, we had read that most iconic of psychoanalytic feminist film theory texts, Laura Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975).3 I found myself explaining, as I often have, that the essay is not meant to give a true account of how they as spectators view cinema. In dialogue with Muñoz, it struck me then that perhaps identity might name the specter lingering over Mulvey's essay over its longue durée, overdetermining how we read it. If “identity” names that which continues to fix the male gaze to the male spectator, how would “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” shift if we were to read its feminist insights instead through acts? Might a reading driven by acts restore the mobility of the gaze to its psychoanalytic roots without compromising Mulvey's still-necessary critique of patriarchal power?
As will be familiar to this readership, with the publication of her essay in Screen, Mulvey introduced psychoanalysis as a feminist methodology for the analysis of cinema. The essay has attracted a continuous and vociferous response ever since its initial publication, becoming the single most assigned, read, and cited piece of feminist film theory, if not all film and media theory. In it, Mulvey does not just use, but appropriates psychoanalysis as “a political weapon.”4 Sigmund Freud's theories offered her insight into hegemonic visions of sexual difference.5 While its contributions are many, as Sharon Marcus notes in a special report published in The Chronicle in honor of its fortieth anniversary, “the phrase ‘male gaze’ appears in the essay only twice but has come to encapsulate its argument.”6 For the male gaze to become the figural emblem of the phallocentric visual order that Mulvey critiques speaks to the hold identity has had on the reading of the text.
After all, the vast majority of responses to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” have been organized around the spectator Mulvey imagined based on the male gaze. Such feminist scholars as Teresa de Lauretis, Mary Ann Doane, Linda Williams, bell hooks, Rhona Bernstein—even Mulvey herself—have worked to correct the essay's neglect of any spectator who is not male (and also straight and white).7 Most of those responses written in the decade that followed “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” started from Freud's lecture on “Femininity” to explain the absence (or, per Doane, “eviction”) of the female spectator from Mulvey's essay.8 A crucial intervention by de Lauretis is to articulate Mulvey's woman as metaphor.9 This is critical, because while Mulvey's essay does uphold a stark opposition between active/male and passive/female poles, in positioning “woman as image, man as bearer of the look,” Mulvey defines sexual difference as constituted by vision rather than anatomy.10 In this way, she exposes Freud's patriarchal unconscious as the eye that assesses the apparent presence/absence of the penis, attaching it to the symbolic power of the phallus, lack in the castrated woman-image, and the looming threat that the penis too might be castrated.
At the same time, as a structure that models the imaginary, psychoanalysis already destabilizes any notion of “empirical” or fixed sexual difference (what I have been suggesting we read as “identity”).11 The lingering cathexis of the male gaze onto the male body might be explained then through the continued relevance of Gayle Rubin's “sex/gender system,” language coined in the same year as “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to describe the process of naturalization that collapses gender with sex to reproduce and justify the sexual division of labor.12 Joan Copjec would rather situate feminist film theory's determinism within a genealogy of the “‘Foucauldization’ of Lacanian theory,” which adopted the panoptic gaze as if it were the Lacanian gaze and lost psychoanalysis's split subject in the process.13
Copjec, along with Jacqueline Rose and Kaja Silverman, worked to correct the particular version of psychoanalysis film studies inherited from Mulvey through the theorization of the gaze.14 Recently, Anne Anlin Cheng's work on shine returns like these scholars to Jacques Lacan's theorization of the gaze in “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a” (1964) to remind us that for Lacan the gaze, rather than representing a controlling look that guarantees its viewer's subjectivity, represents a third term, neither seer nor seen, neither subject nor object.15 In the glint of the shiny sardine can and the sparkle of Josphine Baker and Anna May Wong, Cheng recalls Lacan's gaze as “a provocation, a call to an ethical encounter,” because it is “the thing that rips open our illusion of subjectivity, our certitude as seeing and seen subjects.”16 In this way, without abandoning the very real power structures that Mulvey's critique of patriarchy addresses, Cheng nuances the model of power that the optics of the gaze introduces around mobility and uncertainty. Recognition of this mobility likewise drives Rey Chow's critique of feminists’ overinvestment in “suture” in her essay “Film and Cultural Identity” (1998).17 Lalitha Gopalan comments in her Cinema of Interruptions (2002) that one of Mulvey's overlooked insights relates to “the moments of disruption in classical Hollywood that we have habituated ourselves not to notice, in particular the excessive focus on a woman's body that often breaks the diegesis.”18 The focus on performativity and mobility in these texts suggests a reading practice we might bring back to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” from its psychoanalytic origins, as we continue to return to it again and again.