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Desire in Narrative


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Desire in Narrative


Teresa de Lauretis' Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema ( 1984) is a groundbreaking study in which, as the subtitle indicates, the author attempts to reconcile semiotics and feminist theory for the purpose of analysing narrative in general and film narrative in particular. In the excerpt reprinted below, taken from chapter 5, de Lauretis discards early structuralist studies, like those published in Communications no. 8, on the grounds of their incapacity to account for the structural connection between desire and narrative. Drawing on Roland Barthes' suggestion that there is a structural relationship between narrative and the Oedipus, de Lauretis sets out to analyse the anthropological and structural patterns of the myth, bringing together insights from Propp, Lvi-Strauss and Freud as well as from Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey, among others. Her theory therefore combines anthropological and historical data with structuralism, semiotics and feminist theory. De Lauretis' basic contention is that desire should not be analysed thematically, but structurally; that in fact (male) desire generates narrative and is at the heart of the multifarious versions of what she considers to be the only narrative plot: a hero's quest for fulfilment where woman is the coveted reward. De Lauretis agrees with Simone de Beauvoir's classic feminist denunciation of the construction of woman as 'other' in patriarchal culture and asks important questions about female subjectivity and its representation in narrative as well as about the female spectator's (and by extension, reader's) capacity to achieve a pleasurable identification with the protagonists. Earlier feminist criticism, such as Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader ( 1978), had already pointed out the exclusion of female desire from male narratives as well as from male critical theory. De Lauretis' most innovating contribution to film analysis is her contention that the process of identification of the female spectator involves not one but two simultaneous sets of identifying relations, one with the looks of the camera and of the male characters, and the other with the image, the passive body and landscape.

The question of desire

For feminist theory in particular, the interest in narrativity amounts to a theoretical return to narrative and the posing of questions that have been either preempted or displaced by semiotic studies. That return amounts, as is often the case with any radical critique, to a rereading of the sacred texts against the passionate urging of a different question, a different practice, and a different desire. For if Metz's work on la grande syntagmatique left little room for a consideration of the working of desire in narrative structuration, Barthes's discourse on the pleasure of the text, at once erotic and epistemological, also develops from his prior hunch that a connection exists between language, narrative, and the Oedipus. 1

Oedipus's question then, like Freud's, generates a narrative, turns into a quest. Thus not only is a question, as Felman says, always a question of desire; a story too is always a question of desire.

But whose desire is it that speaks, and whom does that desire address? The received interpretations of the Oedipus story, Freud's among others, leave no doubt. The desire is Oedipus's, and though its object may be woman (or Truth or knowledge or power), its term of reference and address is man: man as social being and mythical subject, founder of the social order, and source of mimetic violence; hence the institution of the incest prohibition, its maintenance in Sophocles' Oedipus as in Hamlet's revenge of his father, its costs and benefits, again, for man. However, we need not limit our understanding of the inscription of desire in narrative to the Oedipus story proper, which is in fact paradigmatic of all narratives. [. . .]

The mythical subject

However varied the conditions of presence of the narrative form in fictional genres, rituals, or social discourses, its movement seems to be that of a passage, a transformation predicated on the figure of a hero, a mythical subject. While this is already common knowledge, what has remained largely unanalyzed is how this view of myth and narrative rests on a specific assumption about sexual difference.

[. . .]

In this mythical-textual mechanics, then, the hero must be male, regardless of the gender of the text-image, because the obstacle, whatever its personification, is morphologically female and indeed, simply, the womb. The implication here is not inconsequential. For if the work of the mythical structuration is to establish distinctions, the primary distinction on which all others depend is not, say, life and death, but rather sexual difference. In other words, the picture of the world produced in mythical thought since the very beginning of culture would rest, first and foremost, on what we call biology. Opposite pairs such as inside/outside, the raw/the cooked, or life/ death appear to be merely derivatives of the fundamental opposition between boundary and passage; and if passage may be in either direction, from inside to outside or vice versa, from life to death or vice versa, nonetheless all these terms are predicated on the single figure of the hero who crosses the boundary and penetrates the other space. In so doing the hero, the mythical subject, is constructed as human being and as male; he is the active principle of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter.

The distance between this view and Propp's is not merely 'methodological'; it is ideological. Suffice it to point out that in very similar terms Ren Girard interprets the Oedipus myth in its double link to tragedy and to sacrificial ritual, and defines the role of Oedipus as that of surrogate victim. Ritual sacrifice, he states, serves to reestablish an order periodically violated by the eruption of violent reciprocity, the cyclical violence inherent in 'nondifference,' or what Lotman calls 'non-discreteness.' By his victory over the Sphinx, Oedipus has crossed the boundary and thus established his status as hero. However, in committing regicide, patricide, and incest, he has become 'the slayer of distinctions,' has abolished differences and thus contravened the mythical order. What is important here, for the purpose of our discussion, is the relation of mythical thought to the narrative form, the plot-text. As Girard states that tragedy must be understood in its mythological framework, which in turn retains its basis in sacrificial ritual or sacred violence, so does Lotman insist on the mutual influence of the two textual mechanisms, the mythical text and the plot-text. The Soviet scholar exemplifies their coexistence or interrelatedness in a great variety of texts from Shakespeare Comedy of Errors to works by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin, from Greek myths and Russian folktales to the Acts of the Apostles. He notes how, in spite of the fact that historically-specific ideas are transmitted by means of the linear plot mechanism, the mythical or eschatological schema continues to be imposed on the secular identity of literary characters; the recurrence in modern texts of themes like fall-rebirth, resurrection, conversion or enlightenment, bears witness to its presence. And further, this imposition achieves the effect of fashioning the ordinary man's individual, inner world on the model of the macrocosm, presenting the individual as a 'conflictingly organized collective.' Thus, he concludes, if 'plot represents a powerful means of making sense of life,' it is because plot (narrative) mediates, integrates, and ultimately reconciles the mythical and the historical, norm and excess, the spatial and temporal orders, the individual and the collectivity.

It is neither facile nor simply paradoxical, in light of such convincing evidence, to state that if the crime of Oedipus is the destruction of differences, the combined work of myth and narrative is the production of Oedipus. 2 The business of the mythical subject is the construction of differences; but as the cyclical mechanism continues to work through narrative -- integrating occurrences and excess, modeling fictional characters (heroes and villains, mothers and fathers, sons and lovers) on the mythical places of subject and obstacle, and projecting those spatial positions into the temporal development of plot -- narrative itself takes over the function of the mythical subject. The work of narrative, then, is a mapping of differences, and specifically, first and foremost, of sexual difference into each text; and hence, by a sort of accumulation, into the universe of meaning, fiction, and history, represented by the literary-artistic tradition and all the texts of culture. But we have learned from semiotics that the productivity of the text, its play of structure and excess, engages the reader, viewer, or listener as subject in (and for) its process. Much as social formations and representations appeal to and position the individual as subject in the process to which we give the name of ideology, the movement of narrative discourse shifts and places the reader, viewer, or listener in certain portions of the plot space. Therefore, to say that narrative is the production of Oedipus is to say that each reader -- male or female -- is constrained and defined within the two positions of a sexual difference thus conceived: male-hero-human, on the side of the subject; and femaleobstacle-boundary-space, on the other.

If Lotman is right, if the mythical mechanism produces the human being as man and everything else as, not even 'woman', but non-man, an absolute abstraction (and this has been so since the beginning of time, since the origin of plot at the origin of culture), the question arises, how or with which positions do readers, viewers, or listeners identify, given that they are already socially constituted women and men? In particular, what forms of identification are possible, what positions are available to female readers, viewers, and listeners? This is one of the first questions to be asked or rearticulated by feminist criticism; and this is where the work of people like Propp and Freud must be seriously reconsidered.

Oedipus interruptus

To succeed, for a film, is to fulfill its contract, to please its audiences or at least induce them to buy the ticket, the popcorn, the magazines, and the various paraphernalia of movie promotion. But for a film to work, to be effective, it has to please. All films must offer their spectators some kind of pleasure, something of interest, be it a technical, artistic, critical interest, or the kind of pleasure that goes by the names of entertainment and escape; preferably both. These kinds of pleasure and interest, film theory has proposed, are closely related to the question of desire (desire to know, desire to see), and thus depend on a personal response, an engagement of the spectator's subjectivity, and the possibility of identification.

The fact that films, as the saying goes, speak to each one and to all, that they address spectators both individually and as members of a social group, a given culture, age, or country, implies that certain patterns or possibilities of identification for each and all spectators must be built into the film. This is undoubtedly one of the functions of genres, and their historical development throughout the century attests to the need for cinema to sustain and provide new modes of spectator identification in keeping with social changes. Because films address spectators as social subjects, then, the modalities of identification bear directly on the process of spectatorship, that is to say, the ways in which the subjectivity of the spectator is engaged in the process of viewing, understanding (making sense of), or even seeing the film.

If women spectators are to buy their tickets and their popcorn, the work of cinema, unlike 'the aim of biology,' may be said to require women's consent; and we may well suspect that narrative cinema in particular must be aimed, like desire, toward seducing women into femininity. What manner of seduction operates in cinema to procure that consent, to engage the female subject's identification in the narrative movement, and so fulfill the cinematic contract? What manner of seduction operates in cinema to solicit the complicity of women spectators in a desire whose terms are those of the Oedipus? In the following pages I will be concerned with female spectatorship, and in particular the kinds of identification available to women spectators and the nature of the process by which female subjectivity is engaged in narrative cinema; thus I will reconsider the terms or positionalities of desire as constituted in cinema by the relations of image and narrative.

The cinematic apparatus, in the totality of its operations and effects, produces not merely images but imaging. It binds affect and meanings to images by establishing terms of identification, orienting the movement of desire, and positioning the spectator in relation to them.

The look of the camera (at the profilmic), the look of the spectator (at the film projected on the screen), and the intradiegetic look of each character within the film (at other characters, objects, etc.) intersect, join, and relay one another in a complex system which structures vision and meaning. [. . .] Cinema 'turns' on this series of looks, writes Heath, and that series in turn provides the framework 'for a pattern of multiply relaying identifications'; within this framework occur both 'subject-identification' and 'subject-process.' 3 'It is the place of the look that defines cinema,' specifies Mulvey, and governs its representation of woman. The possibility of shifting, varying, and exposing the look is employed both to set out and to contain the tension between a pure solicitation of the scopic drive and the demands of the diegesis; in other words, to integrate voyeurism into the conventions of storytelling, and thus combine visual and narrative pleasure. The following passage refers to two particular films, but could easily be read as paradigmatic of the narrative film in general:

The film opens with the woman as object of the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised. But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalised sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. 4

If the female position in narrative is fixed by the mythical mechanism in a certain portion of the plot-space, which the hero crosses or crosses to, a quite similar effect is produced in narrative cinema by the apparatus of looks converging on the female figure. The woman is framed by the look of the camera as icon, or object of the gaze: an image made to be looked at by the spectator, whose look is relayed by the look of the male character(s). The latter not only controls the events and narrative action but is 'the bearer' of the look of the spectator. The male protagonist is thus 'a figure in a landscape,' she adds, 'free to command the stage . . . of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action' (p. 13 ). The metaphors could not be more appropriate.

In that landscape, stage, or portion of plot-space, the female character may be all along, throughout the film, representing and literally marking out the place (to) which the hero will cross. There she simply awaits his return like Darling Clementine; as she indeed does in countless Westerns, war, and adventure movies, providing the 'love interest,' which in the jargon of movie reviewers has come to denote, first, the singular function of the female character, and then, the character itself. 5 Or she may resist confinement in that symbolic space by disturbing it, perverting it, making trouble, seeking to exceed the boundary -- visually as well as narratively -- as in film noir. Or again, when the film narrative centers on a female protagonist, in melodrama, in the 'woman's film,' etc., the narrative is patterned on a journey, whether inward or outward, whose possible outcomes are those outlined by Freud's mythical story of femininity. In the best of cases, that is, in the 'happy' ending, the protagonist will reach the place (the space) where a modern Oedipus will find her and fulfill the promise of his (off-screen) journey. Not only, then, is the female position that of a given portion of the plot-space; more precisely, in cinema, it figures the (achieved) movement of the narrative toward that space. It represents narrative closure.

If narrative is governed by an Oedipal logic, it is because it is situated within the system of exchange instituted by the incest prohibition, where woman functions as both a sign (representation) and a value (object) for that exchange. And if we remark Lea Melandri's observation that the woman as Mother (matter and matrix, body and womb) is the primary measure of value, 'an equivalent more universal than money,' then indeed we can see why the narrative image on which the film, any film, can be represented, sold, and bought is finally the woman. 6 What the promotion stills and posters outside the cinema display, to lure the passers-by, is not just an image of woman but the image of her narrative position, the narrative image of woman -- a felicitous phrase suggestive of the join of image and story, the interlocking of visual and narrative registers effected by the cinematic apparatus of the look. In cinema as well, then, woman properly represents the fulfillment of the narrative promise (made, as we know, to the little boy), and that representation works to support the male status of the mythical subject. The female position, produced as the end result of narrativization, is the figure of narrative closure, the narrative image in which the film, as Heath says, 'comes together.'

With regard to women spectators, therefore, the notion of a passage or movement of the spectator through the narrative film seems strangely at odds with the theories of narrative presented so far. Or rather, it would seem so if we assumed -- as is often done -- that spectators naturally identify with one or the other group of textimages, one or the other textual zone, female or male, according to their gender. If we assumed a single, undivided identification of each spectator with either the male or the female figure, the passage through the film would simply instate or reconfirm male spectators in the position of the mythical subject, the human being; but it would only allow female spectators the position of the mythical obstacle, monster or landscape. How can the female spectator be entertained as subject of the very movement that places her as its object, that makes her the figure of its own closure?

Clearly, at least for women spectators, we cannot assume identification to be single or simple. For one thing, identification is itself a movement, a subject-process, a relation: the identification (of oneself) with something other (than oneself). In psychoanalytic terms, it is succinctly defined as the 'psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides. It is by means of a series of identifications that the personality is constituted and specified.' 7 This last point is crucial, and the resemblance of this formulation to the description of the apparatus of the look in cinema cannot escape us. The importance of the concept of identification, Laplanche and Pontalis insist, derives from its central role in the formation of subjectivity; identification is 'not simply one psychical mechanism among others, but the operation itself whereby the human subject is constituted' (p. 206 ). To identify, in short, is to be actively involved as subject in a process, a series of relations; a process that, it must be stressed, is materially supported by the specific practices -- textual, discursive, behavioral -- in which each relation is inscribed. Cinematic identification, in particular, is inscribed across the two registers articulated by the system of the look, the narrative and the visual (sound becoming a necessary third register in those films which intentionally use sound as an anti-narrative or de-narrativising element).

Secondly, no one can really see oneself as an inert object or a sightless body; neither can one see oneself altogether as other. One has an ego, after all, even when one is a woman (as Virginia Woolf might say), and by definition the ego must be active or at least fantasize itself in an active manner. Whence, Freud is led to postulate, the phallic phase in females: the striving of little girls to be masculine is due to the active aim of the libido, which then succumbs to the momentous process of repression when femininity 'sets in.' But, he adds, that masculine phase, with its libidinal activity, never totally lets up and frequently makes itself felt throughout a woman's life, in what he calls 'regressions to the fixations of the pre-Oedipus phases.' One can of course remark that the term 'regression' is a vector in the field of ( Freud's) narrative discourse. [. . .]

The point, however, is made -- and it is relevant to the present discussion -- that 'femininity' and 'masculinity' are never fully attained or fully relinquished: 'in the course of some women's lives there is a repeated alternation between periods in which femininity or masculinity gain the upper hand.' 8 The two terms, femininity and masculinity, do not refer so much to qualities or states of being inherent in a person, as to positions which she occupies in relation to desire. They are terms of identification. And the alternation between them, Freud seems to suggest, is a specific character of female subjectivity. Following through this view in relation to cinematic identification, could we say that identification in women spectators alternates between the two terms put in play by the apparatus: the look of the camera and the image on the screen, the subject and the object of the gaze? The word alternation conveys the sense of an either/or, either one or the other at any given time (which is presumably what Freud had in mind), not the two together. The problem with the notion of an alternation between image and gaze is that they are not commensurable terms: the gaze is a figure, not an image. We see the image; we do not see the gaze. To cite again an often-cited phrase, one can 'look at her looking,' but one cannot look at oneself looking. The analogy that links identification-withthe-look to masculinity and identification-with-the-image to femininity breaks down precisely when we think of a spectator alternating between the two. Neither can be abandoned for the other, even for a moment; no image can be identified, or identified with, apart from the look that inscribes it as image, and vice versa. If the female subject were indeed related to the film in this manner, its division would be irreparable, unsuturable; no identification or meaning would be possible. This difficulty has led film theorists, following Lacan and forgetting Freud, practically to disregard the problem of sexual differentiation in the spectators and to define cinematic identification as masculine, that is to say, as an identification with the gaze, which both historically and theoretically is the representation of the phallus and the figure of the male's desire. 9

That Freud conceived of femininity and masculinity primarily in narrative rather than visual terms (although with an emphasis on sight -- in the traumatic apprehension of castration as punishment -quite in keeping with his dramatic model) may help us to reconsider the problem of female identification. Femininity and masculinity, in his story, are positions occupied by the subject in relation to desire, corresponding respectively to the passive and the active aims of the libido. They are positionalities within a movement that carries both the male child and the female child toward one and the same destination: Oedipus and the Oedipal stage. That movement, I have argued, is the movement of narrative discourse, which specifies and even produces the masculine position as that of mythical subject, and the feminine position as mythical obstacle or, simply, the space in which that movement occurs. Transferring this notion by analogy to cinema, we could say that the female spectator identifies with both the subject and the space of the narrative movement, with the figure of movement and the figure of its closure, the narrative image. Both are figural identifications, and both are possible at once; more, they are concurrently borne and mutually implicated by the process of narrativity. This manner of identification would uphold both positionalities of desire, both active and passive aims: desire for the other, and desire to be desired by the other. This, I think, is in fact the operation by which narrative and cinema solicit the spectators' consent and seduce women into femininity: by a double identification, a surplus of pleasure produced by the spectators themselves for cinema and for society's profit.


ROLAND BARTHES, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller ( New York: Hill & Wang, 1975).

Cf. MIA CAMPIONI and ELIZABETH GROSS, ''Little Hans: The Production of Oedipus,'' in Language, Sexuality and Subversion, ed. Paul Foss and Meaghan Morris ( Darlington, Australia: Feral Publications, 1978), pp. 99-122.

STEPHEN HEATH, Questions of Cinema ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), pp. 119-20. 'The shift between the first and second looks sets up the spectator's identification with the camera (rigorously constructed, placing heavy constraints, for example, on camera movement). The look at the film is an involvement in identifying relations of the spectator to the photographic image (the particular terms of position required by the fact of the photograph itself), to the human figure presented in image (the enticement and the necessity of a human presence 'on the screen'), to the narrative which gives the sense of the flow of photographic images (the guide-line for the spectator through the film, the ground that must be adopted for its intelligible reception). Finally, the looks of the characters allow for the establishment of

the various 'point of view' identifications (the spectator looking with a character, from near to the position of his or her look, or as a character, the image marked in some way as 'subjective'' (p. 120).

LAURA MULVEY, ''Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,'' Screen 16. 3 (Autumn 1975): 13. In this connection should be mentioned the notion of a 'fourth look' advanced by Willemen: a form of direct address to the viewer, an 'articulation of images and looks which brings into play the position and activity of the viewer . . . When the scopic drive is brought into focus, then the viewer also runs the risk of becoming the object of the look, of being overlooked in the act of looking. The fourth look is the possibility of that look and is always present in the wings, so to speak.' ( PAUL WILLEMEN, ''Letter to John,'' Screen 21. 2 (Summer 1980): 56.)

See CLAIRE JOHNSTON, ''Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema,'' in Notes on Women's Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston ( London: SEFT, 1974), p. 27; and PAM COOK and CLAIRE JOHNSTON, ''The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,'' in Raoul Walsh, ed. Phil Hardy ( Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974).

LEA MELANDRI, L'infamia originaria ( Milan: Edizioni L'Erba Voglio, 1977), see notes 16 and 30 of chapter 1.

J. LAPLANCHE and J.-B. PONTALIS, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith ( New York: Norton, 1973), p. 205; my emphasis.

SIGMUND FREUD, ''Femininity,'' in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey ( London: Hogarth Press, 1955), vol. 22, p. 131.

See JACQUELINE ROSE, ''The Cinematic Apparatus: Problems in Current Theory'' in The Cinematic Apparatus, ed. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath ( London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), pp. 172-86. See also HEATH, ''Difference,'' Screen 19. 3 (Autumn 1978): 50-112.

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