Body: Gaze, Shame and Counter Gaze

This paper attempts to dismantle the power of the gaze over us and propose to bring about a counter gaze that can help resist the crippling effects of this gaze. The gaze is focussed on the Body. In fact it produces plural and hierarchized bodies such as racists or casteist bodies etc. We begin our journey with a kind of a genealogy of gaze and scrutinize the relational dynamism of the Gaze, self and its other, and move into an analysis of how the gaze affects/haunts the self and its other as trauma and its intergenerational transmission becomes a predicament of humanity. Finally we indicate how gaze produces shame and seek a mode of resistance through a counter gaze.

The Birth of Gaze

The gaze cannot be simply subjectivized.  It is not as if we are gazed upon by a big brother. In fact, we are dealing with an empty, apriori gaze. It is a point that ruptures our visual field.  It is a point that returns the gaze.

The Gaze of the Mirror

In Lacans’s essay on “the Mirror stage as formative of I function, as revealed in the Psycho-analytic experience” delivered in 1949.[1] Lacan brings out the close ties between the gaze and the body and the formation of the ego. He argues that the first sense of ego emerges in an infant by looking into the mirror and relating it to its body between the sixth and eighteenth month. The child’s experience of rupture, of having a fragmented body, leads to a sense of mastery by way of the mirror. It is the mirror that disrupts the gaze of the child and returns it, bestowing an illusionary sense of mastery over its fragmented body.[2]  It is an illusion or fantasy because the wholeness of the body is felt in a way that is not experienced. This is certainly a misrecognition of the Image as real, since, it involves a sense of mastery over the body which the child does not enjoy.[3] The sense of lack, which a child feels as a subject, leads to the formation of the ego. We might understand this by how the minorities in our country are pushed by as sense of being not Indian enough to become (h)Indians, by joining the symbolic order of the majority. The same is true about narrow exclusionary nationalism which is also a reactive response to the symbolic order of the colonizer. This is how the self/ego covers its sense of lack and nullity and feels a self-presence which remains within the logo-centric underpinnings of the metaphysics of presence indicated by Derrida.

The Gaze as a object petit a (object cause of desire)  

Lacan presents the gaze as a point of disruption, a lacuna in the field of vision. It is not the look of the seemingly omnipotent look of the subject at the object but the gap at which the desire manifests itself in what we see. The desire distorts the field of vision. Gaze is an object petit a[4] of a scopic drive. It is the drive that motivates us to look. Petit object a in Lacan is always a lost object, an object from which the subject marks its distance and emerges as a desiring subject.[5] It is the loss of the object that triggers the process of recovery that desirers it.  The loss becomes the basis of desire. This in turn reinforces the subject as a lacking self because it does not have the object and the object only exists in so far as it is missing. From our Indian experience, the gaze of the colonizer is still afflicting us. The colonial gaze has disrupted the angle of our vision and we can trace how in the context of an apparent cultural, religious and political superiority, the colonizer has led us (and continues to lead us) to become clones or mimic men of the colonizers. Hence, we have edited versions of colonizers who seek to assert a singularized version of culture and pose it as the pure Indian culture, the unification of various religious indic cults and sects under the banner of Hinduism in the 19th century, and even the singularization of one holy book i.e. the Bhagvad Gita in the 19th century from a number of other prospective books that can also be regarded as holy books. Hence, the real India, its culture and religions continue to be a lost object of desire.

Gaze and Voice

Lacan teaches that when we are talking of voice, it is an answer to the primordial address by the other. It is as if we are already addressed but paradoxically the address is vacuous. We cannot locate the addresser. The addresser remains a blank, an empty apriori, a formal condition of the possibility of speaking. Just like the object returning a gaze becomes the formal condition of seeing anything at all. Thus, in our every experience, we exclude what Lacan calls petit object a and enter into what we believe to be the normal way of living as humans. This means that for a normal access to reality something must be primordially repressed and excluded.[6] In some way we are condemned to be logo-centric, like the object of gaze is a blind spot within the gaze so also the object of voice is silence within the field of the audible. We can only speak in a silent vacuum. But this silence has to be silentified in order that we speak and be heard.  This is why Zizek says, ‘ultimately we hear things because we cannot see everything.’[7] We must further say that we hear what we cannot see as well as see what we cannot hear (as in the case of the picture of a screaming woman in distress). Hence, in the very hearing of oneself speaking and seeing oneself as looking, the gaze returns as a self-mirroring reflection to the immediacy of the vocal self-affection. Thus, the gaze makes us see in the mode of hearing.[8] It is at this point the logo-centric metaphysics breaks down.[9] This is so because the primacy of seeing is derailed and we are into the mediation of the voice, the age of phono-centrism and still another spiral of the metaphysics of presence.  Within this mode of seeing in the mode of hearing one might place the beef politics in our country that makes us see in the mode of tasting. This is related to primordial anal eroticism of our casteist society.

Gaze and Self and its Other

We have already, considered how the subject’s imaginary identity lies literally outside of h/erself.  The ego in this sense cannot be identified with the subject. The encounter with the other, particularly with primary care givers like the mOther, becomes the mirror that leads the infant to imagine a kind of mastery over a fragmented experience of its body.

The Intimate Other   

Lacan teaches us that the ego is related to the subject but cannot be identified with the subject. It is a necessary function of the imaginary of the subject. This means that the subject’s imaginary identity literary lies outside of itself. The ego lies outside what is generally thought to be the self-contained identity of the ego. The ego is eccentric. It is the subject’s imaginary identity. In fact the ego emerges as a splitting and alienating identification of the image in the mirror which self mistakens to be itself. This identification is not an imitative relationship of a pre-existing ego. In fact, the ego comes into being only because the image irremediably traps the subject. This is why the ego becomes the most intimate Other of the self. This means that the ego is the primary Other in which the self identifies itself. Hence, due to the alienating psychic dynamism, we might understand why Ashish Nandy calls it, the most intimate enemy.[10] In some way ego lives what Descartes viewed as madness. This madness consists in believing oneself to be other than what one is.[11]. Within our country we can trace how a majority community is born through the mirror image under colonization and how steadily Indians became what might be called (h)Indians. This migration of the self into an imagined (h)india lays a demand on the minorities to also join the new symbolic order of (h)india.

The Gaze of the Signifier

Words have great power over us. It is as if words condense the power of Gaze. Words have a performative power. They bring into being what they signify. Words affect the way of our being in the world. The symbolic horizon evoked by words determines our life and our being in the world.  The world of words determines our inter-subjective roles. It pushes us to identify with the fore-closed symbolic order(s). It is this symbolic order(s) that embed the inter-subjective circuit. The signifier belongs to a body of images. But when the image acquires an interlace of relations with other images, it produces a semantic resonance which takes us into the symbolic register. Within the symbolic register, it is the speech itself that speaks in and through us. Hence, we become a speaking body and the one spoken to. The speaking and the spoken to dimensions of our body are based in the libidinal (Jouissance) drive. This means that the empire of the signifier is grounded in the experience of Jouissance. The speaking body is also a spoken body. Lacan situated these dynamic roots of the speaking and the spoken body in the unconscious. This takes us to the gaze of the unconscious which interlaces and controls the life and being of the speaking and the spoken body. This why the language becomes identity and we have politics of langue and scripts like the one we experience in Goa.

Unconscious as the Discourse of the Other

With the death of the Cartesian subject, the subject with a substantively rational inner world was deconstructed. This opens us to think that the subject is not primarily what is within but what is without. This takes us not to the question of ‘who I am’ but rather ‘where I am’.  This means that the subject or the self is de-centred and eccentric. The subject is elsewhere. Hence, it is not ‘I think therefore I am’ but it is ‘it thinks there I am’. The subject is constantly displaced by the thinking it. Therefore, we have to agree ‘I think where I am not’ or ‘I am where I think not’.[12]  It is an occulted I. Further, Lacan teaches that the unconscious is structured like a language. It is said to come into existence with the person’s insertion into the symbolic order. It in some way impels and impacts the self. Lacan further, teaches that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other but that other does not exist. Lacan establishes the radical exteriority of the unconscious. The unconscious thus can be viewed as the gaze of the discourse of the Other. Following a Heideggerian view, Lacan posits that language is the house of being but is the torture house of being.[13] The trauma comes from the fact that the Lacanian subject does not fit the language. Hence he says ‘the letter kills the body’. That is why he confronts us with the real which resists language.

Gaze,  Haunting   and Self

Gaze has a haunting dimension. Often the signification systems particularly meaning embedded in  a painful past slides, slips, and is distorted and digressed. Such a past can become part of the symbolic  order that sometimes returns to haunt the self of another generation who has little or nothing to do with that past or the signification system.

The Gaze of Cryptonymy

Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok state that language is perceived as a system of expressive traces. These expressive traces can generate a catastrophe that can initiate a process of repression on words. This is called cryptonymy which inhibits the generation of meaning by concealing a segment of the associative path that normally lets one to freely move from one element to another in a verbal chain.[14] Thus crytonymy operates as a gaze that disinvests meaning (signifier) from a signified. This hollowing of the word is done through the process of encrypting. Perhaps, ‘who’ in the word  Hindu obstructs its inclusive embrace by all Indians which can itself become a point to understand how a traumatic past suppresses and constrains its meaning, while at the same time, one can notice some of our people encrypting an identity into it. Hence, by genealogizing it, we can deconstruct it and manifest that it is not original. This is why Hindu as a subject will always remain haunted by the unhomeliness of the term Hindu because it is striving to reclaim a past that it does not own. Hence, the unspeakable secrets are already put into words that reveal, exorcise and expel them. The same is about the doctrine of niskama karma that represses our guilt and in some cases opens us to become agents without responsibility for our crimes

Transgenerational Haunting Gaze

There is a Gaze that operates in the summoning of the past. This Gaze of the past can live as a haunting presence in our present which seeks to possess the self. The spectral presence of this transgenerational haunting Gaze can be viewed with the Lacanian notion of the unconscious as the discourse of the Other. The spectral presence of the transgenerational haunting gaze becomes more intense when the historical mirror is viewed as cracked. Thus, in the context of colonialism, we might trace how some colonial ideals apparently available but actually unavailable to the colonized people are mourned as loss of an ideal. The trace of such an  incorporation is important for any understanding of the present and the future because of the present that haunts.[15] The psychic effects of concealment and the unspoken make the past refuse to ossify in the past but remains ever-present to the presentness of the people haunting them. Haunting is the symptom of trauma whose cause cannot be represented by language in a linear temporal narratology. In fact, the trauma of the past gets transmitted through the cultural embeddedness to which we are condemned. The haunting gaze instigates verbal stirrings of the secrets and burdens of the past just allowing a glimpse at them through the redeeming act of narration.

Gaze of Postmemory

The painful memories of the past come to haunt us in the present. Often the past that haunts us is not merely temporally represented  but becomes spatially alive to us. The painful past registers itself through geographical and psychological touchstones. The painful past travels through disrupted geographies like the break-down of the Babri Masjid or the temples in Goa. The landscape of the holocaust or the Gujarat Carnage refuses to shed off its geographical trace. But there are complexities to these events. The disruptive events of the past were attempts to erase rather than commemorate a particular traumatic past. Most of these traumatic geographies evoke complex memories of both triumph and loss. Hence, what becomes a memory of triumph for one becomes a counter memory for the other. The painful traumatic memories migrate and multiply by registering themselves in writings of history, literature, the building of monuments, photography, films, paintings etc. Within this haunting of spatially laden memories, we have to understand how and what is described as postmemory by Marrianne Hirsch. Postmemories afflict and affect us like a gaze, leading to changes the in angle of our vision that triggers our thought, feeling and action.[16]

Gaze, Shame, Body and counter Gaze

The experience of our body is not merely physical. There is a profound phenomenological experience of the body. The body can be experienced on different registers. We have an experience of the body as erotic, beautiful, casteiest, racial, and political besides the predominant biological one. The body therefore, pre-exists as well as is created. Hence, this interlocked experience can produce a self-consciousness ranging from triumph on the one hand to guilt and shame on the other. We seem to be living in Schizo bodies.

Gaze, Shame and the Self

The frailty of our bodies makes us feel that our bodies are broken. We seem to hollow the body and treat it as a body without organs. Thus, a masochist body cannot be populated by anything but the intensities of waves of pain. This means that a masochist is seeking a body that only pain can fill. The same is true of a drugged body which seeks to fill it with pleasure. Thus, we have diverse body practices that seek to experience a body without organs. But these Schizo practices paradoxically instead of filling the body only end up emptying them. The casteist body, the racialized body arise from schizolizes that wish for a body without organs. The body without organs is construed in such a way that it can be occupied and populated by intensities, which are circulated and come to pass. A body without organs is the field of immanence of desire.[17] Schizolysis assists us to dismantle the gaze of the yoke of Oedipus. It breaks the odipalization of the body. It deterritorializes the body. The yoke of Oedipus was a resolution of the original shame. Shame is scopic. It draws us to close our eyes as well as escape the gaze of society. Jean Paul Sartre also construes the shaming dimension of Gaze. The voyeur looking through the key hole disturbs the persons objectified by the gaze and overwhelms him with the feeling of shame.[18] Michel Foucault universalizes the gaze  to include not merely what one person might see at one time but the whole human race, no less  might think , if it only could see , was to imprison oneself ‘in an infinitely self-referencing gaze (panopticon).’[19] Hence, Schizolysis becomes a counter gaze since it no longer views the subject as a lacking subject and also does not construe desire as a drive to acquire the lacking object. This means that the self stays in constant process of becoming.[20]

Desire for a Body Without Organs

Deleuze and Guttari’s view of desire as production becomes a great resource to develop a counter gaze.  The Deleuzian body is often ordered according to the order of things (symbolic order) reigning in a particular society. The boundaries of our bodies are set by these orders of things. This means that our bodies are bound by the territorialisations emerging from the order of things in our society. Hence, the bodies are ordered as pure, impure, satvic, tamasic or rajasic, based on the brahminical order reigning in our society. This symbolic order has a rigid hierarchy inscribed in it and as such produces an affect of shame that afflicts those who are pushed to the lower side. Desire when viewed as production becomes unbound and cannot bind our bodies to the order of things. It can deterritorialize our bodies from the bondage of the order of things and thus operate as a counter gaze. Hence, the desire to become a body without organs deconstructs the monoliths imposed by the specific symbolic orders embedded in different cultures.[21]

Riding the Wave of Desire as a Counter Gaze         

The Deleuzian and Guttarian notion of the subject that continuously becomes,offers a radical counter gaze that can resist the gaze of the order of things/symbolic orders that otherwise bring about a process of subjectivation. We are not merely tossed and structured by the (m)Other, our tradition and culture with which we share a dynamic relation. We do not simply fit into the mould of our society. We are in a constant process of crossing our own spatio-temporal boundaries. Deleuze teaches that this process can be psychologically put as the becoming the other in the process of individuation. This means that we do not have any stable pre-existent identity. Our identity is constructed in the dynamic process of individuation. The process of individuation is in constant dialogue with the structure of the order of things in our society and is artistic and creative and may bring about a metaphoric death of the subject, which becomes the condition of the possibility of becoming other than the present self. The anti-oedipus in the subject rises beyond the closed boundaries of the symbolic order and desires to become a body without organs.[22]


No one can live without being under a gaze. The gaze in several ways shapes our embodied lives.  The body is an object of gaze and is affected profoundly by it. But our bodies have the capacity to affect and return the gaze as a counter gaze. Gaze can bring us to shame and counter gaze can redeem us from oppression and exploitation. As Indian Christian thinkers, we are challenged to allow the counter gaze of Indian-ness and Christian-ness to influence our thinking and being in our society.

[1] Jacques Lacan, Encrits , trans. Bruce Fink et al (New York:  W. W Nortan, 2006), 75-81.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] ‘a’  here stands for autre/other  that was developed by Freud and Lacan’s own exploration of the other.  Petit object differentiates from the grand Other.  

[5] Jacques Lacan, Eratum of the four fundamental concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alian Miller. trans. Alan Sheridhan  ( New York: W.W Nortan, 1998), 83-90.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “‘I hear you with my eyes’ or the Invisible Master”, Renata Salael and Salvoj Zizek, eds., in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (London: Duke University Press, 19 96), 91.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 94.

[10]Ashish Nanady, Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonization (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[11] Lorenzo Chiesa, subjectivity and otherness: A Philosophical reading of Lacan (London: the MIT Press, 2007), 16.

[12], accessed on September 3, 2015.

[13]  The symbolic order houses the law that regulates desire (Oedipus complex), and lack, conscience, morality, religion. Within this view, the unconscious also becomes unstable and non-substantive. The Unconscious  is not a place holder of repressions but a dynamic relation of the self to the social world (symbolic order) of law, morality, religion and conscious.

[14]  Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok,  The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Crytonymy,  trans. Nicholas Rand, Theory and History of literature, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota), 37:Lix.

[15] Ranajana Khana, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and  Colonialism  (Dhuram N C:  Duke University Press, 2004), 295.

[16] Brett Ashley Kaplan, Landescapes of Holocaust PostMemory (New York : Rutledge, 2011), 5.

[17] accessed August 22, 2015.

[18] James Miller, The Passion of Michel  Foucault (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), p. 53.

[19] Ibid, p. 54.

[20], accessed on August 25,  2015.

[21] Dani Cavallaro, The Body: For Beginners (Chennai: Orient Longman, 1998), 162-164.

[22]Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, Ant-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000).

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao