The following text is from Art and Psychoanalysis by Maria Walsh. Does anybody know what threatens the return of the look in the bold section?


The other, as black man, acts as both a narcissistic guarantor of the white subject’s wholeness and poses a problem for that very fantasy,the potentially destabilising threat of which thereby engenders the aggression of racism as a defence mechanism to keep the other in his place. The signifier ‘black skin’ both fixes identity and signifies its undoing in paradoxically opening up this realm of fantasy, a factor less explored by Fanon than by more recent commentators on his work such as Bhabha, relating to visual culture and art. ‘In the objectification of the scopic drive, there is always the threatened return of the look; in the identification of the Imaginary relation, there is always the alienating other (or mirror) which crucially returns its image to the subject; and in that form of substitution and fixation that is fetishism there is always the trace of loss, absence.’ A paradox ensues whereby blackness becomes a signifier of that which needs to be made invisible, but is also negatively desired. The black man internalises the inscription of race on the skin,epidermalising this relation which casts him as other, inferior and invisible in his all-too-visible visibility. On the one hand, he is fixed ‘as a chemical solution is fixed by a dye’, but on the other hand he becomes a projection screen onto which the various myths, fantasies and fears about the other are deposited in the bid to secure the white colonial subject.

  • 1
    From Alonzo's commentary, §27:"This bandit stares straight at the camera and defies the signifying system's attempt to fix him as an inferior figure. His laughter is especially subversive, for it seems aimed at the very audience who may be comfortable with his fixed inferior status... In his close-ups, Gold Hat returns the colonial gaze, and his laughter is as defiant as it is comical". The threat is that he will return the stereotyping stare, and stare back. This is more about art than philosophy.
    – Conifold
    Mar 19, 2020 at 6:31

1 Answer 1


When a group is alienated by a society — meaning that some social boundary is created that cannot easily be crossed — the society as a whole must necessarily mythologize the alienated group. The alienated group cannot be ignored or dismissed, since it has a real presence in the consciousness of the society. But at the same time the alienated group cannot be understood through experience, because such experiences are prohibited by the act of alienation. So all the society can do is create a fantasy world in which the alienated group has certain qualities and behaves in certain ways, and that mythological fantasy stands in for actual experience. This can work in various ways. Blacks in the US (which this passage seems to be discussing) are mythologized as inferior and dangerous; Arabs and Indians were traditionally mythologized as alluring and exotic; East Asians were mythologized as hard-working and inscrutable. We can recognize most of these overt mythologies as established prejudices. But these alienating mythologies often carry a psychological undercurrent of private fantasy, where the inaccessible, alienated other — The strong black male, the dashing Arab prince, the exotic Indian or Asian woman — becomes a focus of desire. The alienating mythology itself creates that private desire by rendering it forbidden.

The threat here is that one will look at an alienated other with that private desire and have that gaze returned. This is threatening because meeting that mutual gaze cuts through the social boundary that drives the alienation. It threatens either to fulfill the mythology or destroy it, and either case threatens dire social and personal consequences because it de-alienates the other.

Meeting a gaze directly is an assertion of equal social standing; it's a primitive response we see in most mammals, and certainly in all the higher primates. Any person or group that relies on dominance of others will insist that the dominated avert their gaze, and will interpret direct gazes as an overt challenge to authority. It's the way we're wired.

  • Interesting! Thanks a lot, Ted.
    – user127733
    Mar 21, 2020 at 5:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.