Film Theory: Lacan (Imaginary and Symbolic) Vs. Freud (Oedipal Crisis)

Freud and the Oedipal Crisis

Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex provided the cornerstone for his  psychoanalytic theory and on which the other phenomena relevant to film theory depend.

Freud took the name Oedipus from classical mythology, particularly the story, dramatized by Sophocles. of how Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, a deed for which he was severely punished.

The myth represents for Freud the inevitable fantasy of the growing child: first bound in illusory unity with his mother, whom he does not recognize as Other, separate, or different, the child exists blissfully in a pre‑Oedipal phase; as he moves into the phallic phase, the child becomes aware of his father. At the height of his positive Oedipal phase, he loves his mother and hates his father who takes mother for himself.

Successful resolution of this Oedipal phase takes place on the boy’s discovery that his mother lacks the penis. i.e. is castrated (he can only imagine that all people must originally have had penises). This bitter discovery propels him away from his mother, since he fears that by identifying with the one who lacks the penis, he will endanger his own organ. He now

identifies with his father, whom he longs to be like, and he looks forward to “finding someone like his mother” to marry.

Freud did not pay much attention to the girl’s Oedipal crisis. but post‑ Freudians have generally agreed that it is a much more complicated one. They argue that the girl turns away from her mother through penis envy and the belief that her mother is responsible for her lack of a penis. The girl tries to get from the father what the mother could not provide, now equating “child” with “penis”, and looking to bear the child with a man like her father.

A neo‑Freudian analysis of the girl’s Oedipal complex can be found in Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press).

Chodorow  examines the more difficult task for the girl in having to turn away completely from her first love‑object, her mother, and place erotic interest in her father. She argues that since they cannot “replace” their mothers, as boys do with their wives, girls remain attached pre‑oedipally to their mothers throughout adulthood.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan returned to Freud’s understanding of the female’s lack of male genitalia as a constitutive function of sexual difference, but he interpreted that absence semiologically.

Instead of Freud’s limited anatomical concept of penis envy, for Lacan possession of the phallus (of which the penis allows the male a position in the symbolic order, language is signification, only a sign.

Lacan has said: “The gaze I encounter is not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the other.”

“The gaze is not the other’s glance as such, but the way the glance concerns me.”

The way the subject sees himself or herself is affected by his or her desire.


Aspects of Lacan’s theory have been useful in film theory because he combined Freudian psychoanalysis with semiology, offering a means for linking semiotic and psychoanalytic readings of films.

Lacan’s insight was to rephrase Freudian theory by using a linguistic model for the movement between different stages, as against the non linguistic, essentially biological and developmental Freudian model.

Lacan’s concept of the imaginary corresponds to Freud’s pre-Oedipal phase, although the child is already a signifier, already inserted in a linguistic system. But the world of the imaginary is never the less for the child a prelinguistic moment, a moment of illusory unity with the Mother, whom he does not know as Other. The Lacanian child is forced to move on from the world of the imaginary, not because of the literal threat of castration but because he acquires language, which is based on the concept of “lack.”

He enters the world of the symbolic governed by the Law of the Father and revolving around the phallus as signifier. Here, in language, he discovers that he is an object in a realm of signifiers that circulate around the Father (= phallus). He learns discourse and the different “I” and “You” positions. The illusory unity with the Mother is broken partly by the mirror phase, with the child’s recognition of the Mother as a separate image/entity, and of himself as an image (ego ideal), creating the structure of the divided subject; and partly by introduction of the Father as a linguistic Third Term, breaking the mother child dyad.

Although the child now lives in the symbolic, he participates in the world of the imaginary; it is this world that the experience of the cinema partly recreates, particularly in the sense of providing the more perfect selves (ego ideals) evoked by the mirror phase and facilitating a regression to that phase. (I have deliberately used “he” here since both Freud and Lacan assume a male subject. Part of my task is to make sense of the systems for the female.

(For more complete summary, see Bill Nichols)

Source: Kaplan