Academic journal article Style

Reader, Text, and Subjectivity: Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' as Lacan's Gaze Qua Object

Academic journal article Style

Reader, Text, and Subjectivity: Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' as Lacan's Gaze Qua Object

Article excerpt

In her introduction to the 1995 PMLA issue on "Colonialism and the Postcolonial Condition," Linda Hutcheon proposes that in place of a unitary subject, definitions of postcolonial should yield a "'multiplication' of identities . . . and the intersection of nation, gender, sexuality, class, and race, as well as history, religion, caste, and language." She concludes that "race, class, gender, and sexuality all participate in the complex politics of representation," and therefore suggests "multiple constituencies of postcolonial theory and practice" (11-12). Homi Bhabha concurs that these multiple subject positions "inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world" (Location 1). The act of reading, that is, the interaction between reader and text (what Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin call the "interface . . . between cultures in conflict" [6]), further reflects the role of intersubjectivity in identity formation. The following discussion explores how the text of Toni Morrison's Beloved illustrates how identity components intersect in the maintenance of subjectivity.(1) A multiplication of identities occurs on several levels: within the text, character identity alters according to changing interactions with others; simultaneously, the reader's subject position fades, then reinscribes itself as a result of encountering the text.

My interest in this reader-text interaction emerged as a result of reading Beloved. I was captivated by Morrison's texts in the same way that I was with Faulkner's novels (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). What was it about Morrison's work that recreated my experience with Faulkner's, and how were these experiences similar or different? Both authors use a circular, open-ended, evocative, "feminine" style, both emphasize the power of memory, and both reenact and resist racism. Yet Morrison's world registers as much more distressing and alarming than Faulkner's. I wondered how my multiple constituencies - female, Jewish, white, middle class, American - interact with Morrison's text. In other words, when and how does the reader, who begins the text in a subject position, become the object of the gaze of the narrative? To address this question, I would like to consider what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the "gaze qua object" in Morrison's Beloved, with brief introductory comments about Faulkner's texts.

In Seminar XI, Lacan describes the paradoxical relationship between the gaze and the eye: "In the scopic field, everything is articulated between two terms that act in an antinomic way - on the side of things, there is the gaze, that is to say, things look at me, and yet I see them" (Four Fundamental 109). Zizek explains that "the eye viewing the object is on the side of the subject, while the gaze is on the side of the object. When I look at an object [text], the object is always already gazing at me, and from a point at which I cannot see it" (109). Readers, like observers of a painting, become the object of the text at the moment that some "phallic" spot, some "paradoxical point undermines our position as 'neutral,"objective' observer. . . . This is the point at which the observer is already included, inscribed in the observed scene - in a way, it is the point from which the picture [text] itself looks back at us" (Zizek 91). Zizek suggests that in nostalgic works, as through the naive and innocent gaze of a child, the reader or viewer sees "in the object (in the image it views) its own gaze . . . 'sees itself seeing' . . . [providing] the very illusion of perfect self-mirroring" (114). But, as Zizek explains, Lacan proposes an

irreducible discord between the gaze qua object and the subject's eye. Far from being the point of self-sufficient self-mirroring, the gaze qua object functions like a blot that blurs the transparency of the viewed image. . . . [T]he function of the nostalgic object is precisely to conceal the antinomy between eye and gaze - i.e. the traumatic impact of the gaze qua object. …

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