Triangles and Blind Spots

This bit is from a work in progress (although, isn’t everything work in progress?), from a manuscript that’s in review. For that article I wanted to be very illustrative about landscape and how it works because, for some reason, people don’t often get what the deal with landscape is, despite all the work that’s out there that covers the central concept. So, I opted to explain certain central issues by using triangles. To be fair, using triangles is not my idea. I took that idea from Jacques Lacan who discusses how the human eye and gaze works.

So, in short, in this essay I’ll be looking at ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’, as contained in one of Lacan’s complications, ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’. To be clear, it’s also worth noting that part of this is based on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, namely his final (unfinished) work, ‘The Visible and the Invisible’, that was published posthumously (hence technically unfinished), as he Lacan (71) clearly points out.

Right, as one might guess, this text has to do with reality or, rather, our conception of it. Lacan (71-72) indicates that Merleau-Ponty was on to something with his last book, going beyond the confines of phenomenology. Importantly, Lacan (72) noes that, for Merleau-Ponty, there is something very peculiar about the faculty of vision:

“[T]he ways through which he will lead you are not only of the order of visual phenomenology, since they set out to rediscover – this is the essential point – the dependence of the visible on that which places us under the eye of the seer.”

He (72) adds that:

“[The] eye is only the metaphor of something that I would prefer to call the seer’s ‘shoot’ (pousse) – something prior to his eye.”

In other words, this leads us from the eye to the gaze, as suggested by the subsection title ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze’. So, what’s so special about gaze? Well, according to Lacan (72), the way gaze works entails that to see also means that the one who sees must thus also be seen. This undermines the autonomy of the individual, which is exactly why I opted to explain landscape this way in the manuscript. Anyway, he (74) notes that people are in the habit of conflating the two, the eye and the gaze, which makes them oblivious to how gaze works. He (74) adds that this is not to be confused with “seeing oneself seeing oneself”, which some might think to be the case when one sees oneself in the mirror. You fool yourself if you think that this is it. As he (74) points out, such “represents mere sleigh of hand.” The mirror is tempting in this regard because it seems like you get it, but you don’t. What you get is not you being looked at but just you looking, yet you are tempted to think otherwise. In his (75) words, gaze “makes us beings who are looked at, but without showing this[.]” Following Merleau-Ponty, he (74-75) calls this phantasy the specular image, the spectacle of the world, the speculum mundi. So, in a way, the way we see, in general, is like looking at a mirror, looking at ourselves, but taking what we see to be reality itself.

The mirror is impressive in this regard because it relies on mimicry. He (73-74) explains this split between seeing and being seen by what are known as ocelli, mimetic manifestations commonly know as false eyes that can be found, for example, on butterfly wings. Their function is to make the predated, in this case the butterfly, appear as if it was a predator, to its predators. But, as he (73-74) goes on to problematize, is it a matter of looking at (eyes) or is it a matter of looking at looking (gaze)? Does your mirror image look at you (gaze) or is it just you looking at you through a reflective surface (eye)? We like to think that we look at looking (in the mirror), but that’s just us seeing things, or so to speak. This is exactly the problem. It’s not that we aren’t seen by others (gaze), when in fact we are, from all possible angles, at all times, being visible, if not actually, then at least potentially, but that we are in the habit of ignoring this (gaze), thus giving primacy to the observer (eye).

In short, what Lacan (80) wants to point out with this questioning of whether one see oneself seeing oneself or not is what the Cartesian Cogito does with regard to thought. Is it possible to think of oneself thinking oneself or is one just thinking? As indicated by him (80), this is how the subject appears to apprehend his- or herself in thought. He (80) ponders this:

“How is it, then, that the I see myself seeing myself remains its envelope and base, and, perhaps more than one thinks, grounds its certainty?”

Only to add that (80):

“For, I warm myself by warming myself is a reference to the body as body – I feel that sensationof warmth which, from some point inside me, is diffused and locates me as body.”

And to compare the two faculties, the vision and touch (80):

“Whereas in the I see myself seeing myself, there is no such sensation of being absorbed by vision.”

There is this disjoint, this discomfort with this when one points this out, as he (80-81) goes on to add; what one sees is the outside, as if everything happens external to oneself, yet one apprehends the world as if one is capable of seeing oneself, like in the mirror example. Now, as I pointed out, strictly speaking, it’s a ruse. What one sees is a reflection of oneself, not oneself seeing oneself. Simply put, one never sees oneself. That said, it is a cunning ruse alright. Thought can be treated with suspicion, with doubt, as ideal, and thus not real, but vision, surely we can trust the eye. He (81) summarizes how this works:

“The privilege of the subject seems to be established here[.]”

It is at this stage that (81):

“[It emerges] from that bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me.”

He (81) emphasizes that one should make note of how these representations come to belong to the subjects, as soon as one perceives. I would also emphasize the bit about it being reflexive. What appears to a person are thus mere suspicious representations, as he (81) refers to them, but because they point back at the person, the person realizes that they are property, that is to say in the person’s ownership. The subject appears central, as if the world out there was tied to the subject and, certainly, not the other way around. He (81) argues that Descartes takes this to max, as does Martin Heidegger, thus annihilating everything, including the subject, which, oddly enough, makes the subject central to everything, making one appear, as if, self-evident to oneself.

Now, if you are familiar with phenomenology, you’ll know that Merleau-Ponty built on Heidegger (as well as Edmund Husserl), so one might expect him to end up like Heidegger, giving primacy to the subject. However, Lacan (81) reckons that’s not the case, at least not in his final (unfinished) work. In his (81) words, Merleau-Ponty is after something else:

“[I]t is at this point that he chooses to withdraw, in order to propose a return to the sources of intuition concerning the visible and the invisible, to come back to that which is prior to all reflection, thetic or non-thetic, in order to locate the emergence of vision.”

He (81-82) adds that, for Merleau-Ponty, this is a matter of reconstruction or restoration of “the original point of vision was able to emerge” from “the flesh of the world” rather than the body of the subject. So, instead of turning to the inside, one must focus on the outside. One mustn’t start from the subject, to state that all that’s out there is ours, our representations, because that leads to an error, giving primacy to the subject (because the subject is, itself, presupposed by the subject). Instead, one must ask what gives rise to the subject. In Lacan’s (82) formulation, what is the “unnamed substance from which I, the seer, extract myself”, what is the “iridescence of which I am at first a part” and “emerge as eye, assuming, in a way, emergence from what I would like to call the function of seeingness (voyure)”?

Because the Merleau-Ponty’s work in question was indeed an unfinished manuscript, certain things are left open, remaining rather enigmatic to the reader, which Lacan (82) points out at this stage (in particular, as he does mention it elsewhere as well). He (82) likens the illusion seeing oneself seeing oneself to the way Merleau-Ponty (263) exemplifies “double ‘representation’” with a finger of a glove that is turned inside out because this chiasm or reversibility “finds it basis in the inside-out structure of the gaze.”

Lacan (82-83) turns his attention to defining gaze. In short, a person ends up giving primacy to oneself as a subject because of how we typically deal with subjects and objects. In summary, Lacan (83) argues that the subject emerges from this relation with what’s supposedly out there through gaze. He (83) calls this a scopic relation in which the gaze is the underside of consciousness. He (84) notes that he doesn’t agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s take on the gaze because, for him, gaze is not a subject-subject relation (one seeing another) but rather a subject-object relation (one seeing another or imagining another, like with the mirror or the butterfly wings). Anyway, be as it may, I like how he (84) explains the effect of the gaze in relation to Sartre:

“As the locus of the relation between me, the annihilating subject, and that which surrounds me, the gaze seems to possess such a privilege that it goes so far as to have me scotomized, I who look, the eye of him who sees me as object.”

The word scotomized is crucial here. In simple terms, scotoma is a fancy word for a blind spot, so here scotomization is about being rendered blind, to a certain degree, not merely to the world, what’s out there but, more importantly, also to oneself. Following this point about gaze being a way of seeing, involving a central blind spot, he (84-85) argues that because gaze operates as a function of desire, in the sense that is sustains the primacy of the subject. In other words, the way I understand him (84-84) explaining this, gaze is desirable, that is to say that one gazes because one desires to gaze. It’s something one wants to engage in. In short, as he (85) points out, desire and the domain of vision are intertwined.

Lacan (85) refers back to the Cartesian meditation that results in giving primacy to the subject, noting that Descartes was not only known for this, but also for optics and geometry (like, to my knowledge, many others were at the time). He (85-86) exemplifies the importance of perspective and projection with Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, a painting that contains a skull (a memento mori, hinting towards mortality) in the foreground. The thing with the painting is that if you look at as generally does, placed in front of the painting, you see the painting with a squished blip at the bottom (I actually initially wondered if it was something that someone added in reproduction when I looked up the painting online). However, if you move to the side and take another look at the painting, the squished blip is rendered correctly. It now appears to be a skull, while the rest of the painting squished into obscurity. This is what is known as anamorphosis, as he (85) points out.

Having established that one’s point of view matters, Lacan (86) argues that “[v]ision is ordered according to a mode that may generally be called the function of images”, “virtual or real”, which, in turn, is defined as “a point-by-point correspondence of two unities in space.” He (86) adds that an image is defined as anything “in which the straight line plays its role of being the path of light.” So, in summary, to understand an image, we need to understand geometric points and how they are used to depict something on a surface, as he (86) rephrases this.

Now, if you’ve read my previous essays or something like Denis Cosgrove’s article ‘Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea’, much of what I will add here is bound to be familiar to you. Anyway, as aptly expressed by Lacan (86), “[a]rt is mingled with science here.” He (86) reminds us that people like Leonardo da Vinci, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Leon Battista Alberti were not only artists but also scientists. They were polymaths, people who knew all kinds of things. They were not limited to this or that discipline. In other words, they were happily all over the place with what they were doing. Linking this to Descartes, he (86) notes that the Cartesian subject “is itself a sort of geometral point, a point of perspective[.]” Of course, it’s worth noting that Descartes was not their contemporary but rather built on what they had already established. With Descartes it’s rather that the subject becomes central.

Anyway, so, the point he (86-87) is making is that between the subject, for example the artist, and the object, whatever the artists wishes to depict, there is this mediator, “a canvas, a treliss that will be traversed by straight lines … which will link each point that I have to see in the world to a point at which the canvas will, by this line, be traversed.” He (87) adds that if this move is reversed, if the lines are traced back to the world, whatever it the artist wished to depict in the first place, through the mediator, it will result in a distortion.

Turning his attention to the mediation, Lacan (91) illustrates how this works by presenting two triangles situated on different sides of the page, both pointing at the center. The center points are the geometral point (subject) and the point of light, whereas the opposing end is the object or the picture. In the middle, you have the image, the screen. I’ll deviate a bit from his illustrations here, but, simply put, the idea is that this can be illustrated with a simple triangle.

Of course, as emphasized by him (93), the doubling of the triangles has to do with the double function, the inside-out structure of the gaze. What’s in the middle then (picture, screen) is exactly what he (89) calls “a trap for the gaze. As emphasized by him (89):

“In any picture, it is precisely in seeking the gaze in each of its points that you will see it disappear.”

So, as already mentioned a couple of times, once one backtracks the gaze through the mediator, the gaze disappears, thus annihilating the subject, replacing it with something like a universal subject, as argued by him (88) in reference to how the Cartesian Cogito works. He (93-94) makes note of how paradoxical this is, indicating how, on one hand, there is this tradition of suspicion of perception, as opposed to thinking, yet, on the other hand, this primacy of thought ends up giving legitimacy to perception. In his (94) words:

“The whole trick, the hey presto!, of the classic dialectic around perception, derives from the fact that it deals with geometral vision, that is to say, with vision in so far as it is situated in a space that is not in its essence the visual.”

So, in other words, because space is thought to be a mere matter of geometry, that one is in space, located in it, in relation to everything else that’s in it, vision simply gives us that, what we (supposedly) already know. He (94) further specifies how this pertains not only to geometral lines but also to how light works, not in a straight line but as irradiating, flooding, filling, diffusing, refracting, hence his earlier remarks about the point of light. This leads to his (94-95) second schema of triangles, that I have depicted here in a slightly simplified way:

What’s important here, according to him (95), is that once the two triangles are superimposed, place one upon the other, you get interlacing or intersecting, a chiasma, the double function that was mentioned a bit earlier. You’ll find him (106) presenting the triangles later on, following his anecdotal story about his youthful adventure at sea with fishermen, culminating with pondering about a can sardines that, highly ironically, was spotted floating in the water, glistening in the sun. The gist of his (95) story is that one of the crew members pointed at the can, noting that Lacan can see the can but the can cannot see him, of which Lacan thought otherwise. This harks back to his earlier point about gaze being not a matter of being seen (by someone else), but being visible, there being the potential of being looked at, like in the butterfly example. It’s also worth reiterating that he isn’t talking about seeing (vision) but about gaze. He (95) acknowledges that the fisherman was indeed right that the can did not see him, but points out that, nonetheless, the can was looking (gaze) at him. In his (95) words:

“It was looking at me at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at me is situated.”

He (96) moves on to further elaborate this in relation to how one senses light:

“That which is light looks at me, and by means of that light in the depths of my eye, something is painted – something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers – but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not, in advance, situated for me in its distance.”

The key word here is, I believe, impression, that thing that we like to think as being painted on a surface. So, instead of us seeing what’s just out there, waiting for us to see, is, in fact, an impression. That’s our own making. Then again, what makes us? That’s what’s at stake here. The world makes us see it. In his (96) words:

“It is rather it that grasps me, solicits me at every moment, and makes of the [world] something other than [the world], something other than what I have called the picture.”

Here I replaced the word landscape with world, because, for me, landscape has a rather specific conceptual function. This goes back to his (91) earlier point about how the end of the triangle is what he calls the object or the point of light, situated in the distance from the geometral point or the point of light. What he (96) is talking about is at what’s in the middle once you superimpose the two triangles, the image or the screen, which he’ll (106) go on to dub as the image-screen.

I’m skipping Lacan’s elaborate (albeit interesting) discussion of mimicry and jumping ahead a bit, to a point in which he (100) ponders “[w]hat is painting?” Using the terms subject and picture, as discussed earlier on in relation to the opposite sides of the triangle, he (100-101) notes that some consider painting as operating like a subject, like a gaze, in which “the artist intends to impose [itself] on us” whereas others tend to consider it a mere object. Again, this goes back to the point made a couple of times already, how, on one hand, when one looks at a painting, it’s one looking at a painting, yet, on the other hand, it’s like the painting is looking at you, even though, how on earth does a painting look at anyone? How does it impose anything on anyone? Certainly the subject, the one looking at the painting must be the one who is in control of what’s going on! I mean, it’s just a canvas! You’d have to be insane to argue otherwise! Then again, oddly enough, there’s nothing insane about that! The feeling of the gaze is nonetheless there, even in the absence of people (other subjects). In his (101) words:

“Looking at pictures, even those most lacking in what is usually called the gaze, and which is constituted by a pair of eyes, pictures in which any representation of the human figure is absent, like a landscape by a Dutch or a Flemish painter, you will see in the end, as in filigree, something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze.”

In short, even when there’s nothing that is looking at you, or, rather, that would appear to be looking at you, considering that you are, in fact, looking a canvas, a flat surface, you may get the feeling of being looked at. This is, of course, a mere illusion, as he (101) points out. The canvas stares at no one. He (101) argues that while important, as such, what we tend to get with a painting (not all paintings, mind you) in is, instead, an invitation to see, to look, rather than to engage in pondering about who is looking at who (observing or being observed), which eradicates the gaze in favor of the eye. So, in other words, a painting invites you to look at it, situating you in front of it, at a fixed point, giving you the sense that you are in control, observing the real deal. He (101) calls this the pacifying effect of paintings, in the sense that one lays down one’s gaze like “one lays down one’s weapons.” He (101) calls this the “Apollonian effect of painting”, which, of course necessitates that you know what Apollonian means. In short, to my understanding, here it is meant as something harmonious, orderly or rational, in opposition to what is called Dionysian, impulsive, disorderly and irrational, what Friedrich Nietzsche might call enjoying life. The point here is that paintings tend to promote the Apollonian side, thus promoting the primacy of the subject as an orderly autonomous rational thinker. Anyway, as he (102-104) goes on to point out, this is a ruse, a trompe-l’œil, which functions to present the subject as other than what one is. Later on, he (109) also calls this the taming of the gaze, dompte-regard.

Jumping ahead, to the next segment, Lacan (105-106) depicts the superimposed triangles that I’ve already covered. Here he (105-106) reiterates his earlier remarks, summarizing the superimposed triangles as functioning in a scopic regime. As already pointed out, once the triangles are superimposed, you get the image-screen in the middle, as indicated by him (106). Again, he (107) states that what’s important about this image-screen is how it “re-establishes things, in their status as real.” As a consequence of this, “in its relation to desire, reality appears only as marginal, as he (108) goes on to add. He (108) illustrates this with two concentric circles, the smaller being the image-screen, reality being what’s outside of it, hence being marginal. Simply put, what we think is reality is, in fact, not reality. What we see is a mere picture or a screen, a substitute reality, if you will. So, in a way, what we see is actually our blind spot. The same thing can be illustrated with the superimposed triangles:

Here I marked the marginal in grey, which makes the smaller triangles that meet in the middle stand out. The point here is that the original triangles are replaced by the smaller triangles that emerge once the image-screen is in place. So, what you see is, in fact, what makes you blind to reality while you think that you are seeing reality.

To get out of this trap set up by the mediator, Lacan (110) makes note of how Merleau-Ponty points to the work of Paul Cézanne (whom I’ve covered in the past as well), with “those little blues, those little browns, those little whites, those touches that fall like rain from the painter’s brush”, that sets out to rework our understanding what a painter does. The point he (110) is making is that we like to think that painters are (re)presenting reality to us, when, in fact, it is not the case, yet, the way we are invited to look at paintings set us up to do exactly that, to treat what they give us as the real deal, which upholds the primacy of the subject. This leads back to the earlier point about thinking of seeing as a mere triangle, the eye being there just to observe what’s just given, out there.

Lacan (110-112) moves on to ponder this, what does one do when one paints, in terms of creation or creativity. Is a painting to be valued on the basis of its verisimilitude or for what it invokes in the viewer? He (103, 111-112) exemplifies this with the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two ancient Greek painters who competed to determined who is the greater artist. So, Zeuxis painted grapes that made birds approach the painting and peck at the grapes. Parrhasios countered this by painting a veil, which made Zeuxis ask Parrhasios to unveil the painting so that he can see what his fellow artist has painted. Lacan (103, 111) notes that the grapes painted by Zeuxis were not, apparently, great pictorial reproductions of grapes, so if we were to be able to assess the painting, we might mockingly point out that he didn’t do a great job at making what he painted look like grapes. Then again, he (112) adds that our assessment of grapes is not the same as that of birds. We like to assess what’s presented to us visually in terms of verisimilitude, whereas birds aren’t drawn to grapes by such assessments. Parrhasios painted something so deceptive, so illusory that it fools a human, because humans assess it in terms of realism, whether it appears to be the real deal or not, even though it should be obvious to us that what we are looking at is a mere painting.

Lacan (112) clarifies this issue by adding that what’s at stake is not really whether a “painting gives an illusory equivalence to the object,” but that it “pretends to be something other than what it is.” So, again, in simple terms, it should be obvious to us that a painting is just that, a painting, some paint on some surface, typically on a canvas, yet we come to think otherwise. This is what is what is meant by trompe-l’œil, mistaking the painting for something real, like a man climbing through a window. He (112) comments on this in Plato’s terms, noting that this is not about mere appearance (phenomenon), making what is painted to look like something, but rather what’s behind the appearance (noumenon). In Kantian terms, it’s not that a painting seems to present us an appearance of a thing, but the thing-in-itself. So, according to Lacan (112), it is this that “captures our attention and delights us.”

To wrap this up, what I like about this, Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’, is that provides a lengthy discussion of gaze and how it is commonly misunderstood as merely a stare that emanates from the eye, something that people do, with emphasis on people here. I like how it explains how we like to think of ourselves as being in control, looking at the world, everything centered around the eye that registers what’s out there, like in the form of a cone, a pyramid or a triangle, yet this is a mere fantasy. Once we realize that this is a mere ruse, as one might come to realize when confronted with Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, we get this unnerving sense of being watched, stared at, even if there is, technically, nothing that is actually watching us, staring at us, which is the case in the Holbein painting as it is just mere paint on a surface. This is what Lacan calls gaze, as opposed to the eye. I like the way he illustrates how misconceived this is, with the superimposed triangles. There’s something that I just like about simple illustrations. I also like how he explains that the thing with paintings, and, I would argue, even more so with photos, is that we come to think of them as not only representing what the thing (phenomenon) that is (supposedly) depicted in visual appearance but as the thing-in-itself (noumenon), to use the Kantian terms.

Now, I didn’t cover the entire book, nor his other works, so this criticism may be misguided, but I would have like a bit more discussion as to why it is that the eye tends to reign supreme over the gaze, why it is that one comes to uphold oneself as the starting point for everything, i.e. upholding the primacy of the subject, even when one comes to encounter the gaze, to realize that there is something that’s before the subject, something that constitutes the subjects, and that what the eye provides to oneself is a mere projection, a subsidiary screen. There’s some discussion included, in relation to the Cartesian Cogito but this could have been fleshed out just a bit more. Also, following the text can be a bit tough at times, not because it’s not interesting reading, as it certainly is, but because one has to keep in mind what he means by the eye, the gaze, seeing, looking and the like, and assess whether he is using the words the way he uses them or in more general parlance, how people might use them conversationally. At least I was somewhat confused at times. So, yeah, it can be a bit tough to follow at times.

Is this something that I find useful in my own work? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it explains a very common misconception, almost effortlessly, but also no, in the sense that it doesn’t delve deep into the social aspects, what are the parameters of our projections as fed to us by others, something which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari address in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ when they discuss faciality and landscapity. I also prefer how Deleuze and Guattari explain that gaze is a mere component in certain regimes of signs. It is, of course, a very important component, but a mere component nonetheless. It is of secondary value for them (171), a subsidiary product (which, of course, does play a role, once already produced):

“In the literature of the face, Sartre’s text on the look and Lacan’s on the mirror make the error of appealing to a form of subjectivity or humanity reflected in a phenomenological field or split in a structural field. The gaze is but secondary in relation to the gazeless eyes, to the black hole of faciality. The mirror is but secondary in relation to the white wall of faciality.”

I do have to object a bit here, to note that I think the way Lacan explains gaze in his book is actually fairly close to how Deleuze and Guattari address it. Then again, the emphasis is different and I find myself agreeing with the two more than I do with Lacan on this issue. As they (171) point out, there is still this appeal to some sort of subjectivity or universality that bothers me. I think somehow Lacan still ends up looping back to the subject, in some sort of universality that is implied by his definition that is, in part, rooted in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (I think I need to read his work more to comment on this better). As I pointed out, for Deleuze and Guattari, gaze is a product of certain regimes of signs and thus only historical, not universal. That said, it’s not that what’s covered here in this essay conflicts with their views, inasmuch as the gaze is not held as primary but secondary. So, in summary, ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’ is well worth the read if you are interested in landscape.


  • Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10 (1), 45–62.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Holbein, H., the Younger (1533). The Ambassadors.
  • Lacan, J. ([1973] 1981). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (J-A. Miller, Ed., A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: W. W.Norton & Company.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1964] 1968). The Visible and the Invisible (C. Lefort, Ed., A. Lingis, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.