Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Five: Limits of the Diaphane: Reflections on Visuality as a Modality of the Narcissistic Drive

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Five: Limits of the Diaphane: Reflections on Visuality as a Modality of the Narcissistic Drive

Article excerpt

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane ... If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see. (Joyce, 1961, p. 37).


According to Gilles Deleuze (1993, p. 93), "Every perception is hallucinatory because perception has no object." It is difficult to know what Deleuze might have meant by this, but his statement - intended to elucidate the baroque epistemology of Leibniz - suggests a new "fold" in Freud's (1900, p. 565) fundamental metapsychological intuition: that mental imagery (dreaming, imagining, thinking) begins with the absence of what is looked for. The "hungry baby," in primordial psychic recoil from pain and frustration, "hallucinates" the object that has come to be associated with the satisfaction of its need by recalling a memory trace of that satisfaction as a stand-in for the missing perception - the missing reality - of the feeding breast. The situation is not dissimilar to Proust's "involuntary memory": it reminds us that the "object" of perception is never simply "what is there to see." There is always something more - or (in some cases, even more importandy) something less than meets the eye.

Another way to read Deleuze's sentence would be theological: we are in a state of permanent hallucinosis because God does not exist. If God existed, in other words, we would have a real object of perception. Brought into existence for a divine purpose, we would understand that we are on this earth in order to see the particular thing that we are meant to see. We would no longer be hallucinating; what we saw would be the legitimate object of perception. But since we have no God to endorse and enforce the legitimacy of what we see, we are left without anything in particular to see, and thus what we do see must be only the contingent objects of our desire - as in Freud's thought experiment of the hungry baby, hallucinations of a missing reality. In Deleuze's idiom, this condition might be called the simulacrum (Deleuze, 1990).

The "signatures of all things I am here to read," which Stephen Daedalus wonders about, would seem to refer to this "missing reality" of the divine presence, which has been replaced by a "rusty boot"; in a Samuel Beckett moment, the signatures of Creation have vanished, along with the whole medieval episteme of the "great chain of being" (Lovejoy, 1936; Foucault, 1970), which Joyce never ceased to mourn. Yet, as the philosopher Merleau-Ponty has demonstrated through the elegance of his introspective explorations of perception, the flight of the spirit from the flesh of the world does not evacuate that world of its sense of mystery. In his reflections on the carnal intertwinings of seeing and being seen, the seer and the seen, Merleau-Ponty speaks of a certain optimal distance, which he describes as the "thickness" of the look.

The visible about us seems to rest in itself. It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand. And yet it is not possible that we blend into it, nor that it passes into us, for then the vision would vanish at the moment of formation. What there is then are not things first identical with themselves, which would then offer themselves to the seer, nor is there a seer who is first empty and who, afterward, would open himself to them - but something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look . . . How does it happen that my look, enveloping them, does not hide them, and, finally, that, veiling them, it unveils them? (1968, p. 131; emphasis added)

In this remarkable meditation, a sort of extended haptic metaphor, on the notion of an optimal distance, Merleau-Ponty seems to hint at the idea of a "cosmic coincidence," the sheer chance that underlies vision and visibility. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.