PRINT May 1984


The dreamer does not know that he is dreaming . . .
—Christian Metz1

TO WHAT MAY WE ATTRIBUTE our fascination for the image, a pleasure whose object is not the image itself but something of the order of phantasm, whose home is that realm of the inscrutable: the unconscious? It is amongst the perversities of the Alfred Hitchcock film that it allows us a glimpse of that which is not readily visible, as a shadow passing across a veil. Of all the director’s films it is Vertigo (1958), obsessive, subterranean, and fabulous, which is constructed around this psychic fascination; it is this tension of something perpetually sought, but which continually hovers only at the periphery of vision, that becomes resurrected in Victor Burgin’s recent work, “The Bridge,” 1983–84. The six photo-constructions that form “The Bridge” do not constitute a narrative sequence but an association of “moments” in the form of tableaux vivants which collectively flush out the “moment” in Vertigo when Madeleine (Kim Novak) is rescued by Scottie (James Stewart) from her attempted suicide in San Francisco Bay. By what trajectory has Burgin’s work on the photographic apparatus (all the intertextural codes that inform the image and which guarantee the viewing subject’s inscription metaphorically within the frame) led him to Hitchcock’s cinematic text and his reflection on its fascination?

Both auteurs are rigorous formalists: like Hitchcock, Burgin is notorious for his seemingly tight control of the mise-en-scène in order to achieve maximal photographic effect. This is more than simply audience “manipulation”; it means an attention to the way that the institution of the photograph and of the cinema, of the image-machine (their formal, cultural, and historical formations), conjoins with the psychical apparatus of the spectator to produce a meaning effect. For Hitchcock this effect was subsumed under the industry’s rubric of entertainment, but he was obviously well aware of the cinema’s implication with psychoanalysis. What indeed is Spellbound (1945)—“the first picture on psychoanalysis”2—if not a tale of the psychoanalytic mythos itself: the story of a hero, an amnesiac unable to articulate his self, who is restored to his identity by the goddess/analyst? For Burgin this effect is central to his critique of the image, a point arrived at through a passage that began with his interrogation of the ideological meanings inscribed within the photographic image and subsequently shifted into a study of the power relations at work in the exchange between that which is represented and the viewer, an exchange that is mediated by “the look.”

The iconic triptych construction of several of Burgin’s “Bridge” tableaux reminds us of the look’s historical formation. The format of the work corresponds to the relation between the photographic negative and its subsequent print—wholes and parts, cropped, framed, and juxtaposed in quattrocento harmonic proportions, containing a perspective based on spatial shifts and glances into which the spectator is drawn. The single vanishing point and its visual pyramid, inherited by the camera’s monocular lens, present an empty place to be filled by the viewer, and in which the viewer is centered as subject in a fixed point of view which donates an illusory authority of vision: the privileged place of the monarch, the Law, God, the ultimate signified. It is in this condition of spectatorship that Burgin’s photographic work coincides with Hitchcock’s films, which are constructed primarily around the specular (even his sound is in many cases an orchestration of silence). Hitchcock’s unique understanding of his medium’s relation to the image as spectacle led him to make two films, Vertigo and Rear Window (1954), whose play on seeing and the seen renders them paradigms of the cinematic experience which centers on looking.

In Rear Window, Jeffries (James Stewart), a documentary photographer (and hence someone who is authorized to spy on other people’s lives), is temporarily confined to a wheelchair. He amuses himself by surveilling his neighbors from behind his apartment window. Thus, he is a fixed eye, as is the cinema spectator, one moreover that is extended first by binoculars and then, as he becomes more involved in the spectacle, by his telephoto lens. His vision, in other words, is collapsed into the monocular view of the camera mechanism. In his discussion of what precisely the cinema viewer identifies with in the film (and he or she must identify with something that approximates reality, otherwise the film would be unintelligible), Christian Metz points out that the screen is like a mirror which reflects all but the viewer himself as an object. That identification exists even without there being a character on screen is possible because the viewer's already-constituted ego has had the experience, as an infant, of primary identification with the imaginary mirror as an act of self-objectification, which enables him henceforth to exchange himself as object for other perceived objects.3 Jeffries’ looking is, like ours, more than idle curiosity; his is a look that wants to know, something which is made evident by the fact that he very quickly constructs a pretext for looking. Jeffries as camera “makes” the scenario framed by his neighbor’s window as the spectator/viewer as camera “makes” the film on the screen.

What is it that this look desires to see and wants to know? Jeffries is not at first aware that what he sees is not in fact what he desires to know, but a decoy, and it is here that the audience is in a more privileged position than he. For what we are aware of, that he is ignoring—blind to, emotionally and visually—is Lisa (Grace Kelly), who spends much of the first part of the film standing behind his wheelchair and thus to the rear of his vision. She does not appear on his “screen” until she breaks into the neighbor Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) apartment and is trapped by him; this is the moment when Jeffries realizes his desire for her, a moment which also crystallizes the voyeuristic experience. In the dynamics of the psyche, desire, which turns on the sexual drives, is always for a “lost object”: the mythic self in complete maternal relation before it objectifies itself into a representation. This vacant place cannot be filled with substitutes; consequently the tragedy of desire is that it must perpetually seek without satisfaction, and ultimately can desire only itself. As Metz discusses, the pleasure of the voyeuristic relation is in the maintenance of desire’s desire for itself in the space between the subject’s eye and the object of his excitation4—Jeffries desires Lisa not when she is bodily present, but only when she is removed—a distance that allows the voyeur power over the object without the necessity of relinquishing his own sense of self. The comfort felt by the film viewer is that of seeing a spectacle that does not acknowledge it is being seen.

This voyeurist distance, according to Metz, also “symbolically and spatially evokes . . . [the] fundamental rent” of the self.5 In an earlier work, “Zoo 78,” Burgin presents voyeurism as an interdependent articulation of power and sexual gratification but at the same time reveals the pathos of this separation. In one of eight diptychs, a photograph of a framed painting of the Brandenburg Gate upon a parlor wall is played off against the spectacle of a naked woman and her reflection on a revolving dais taken from a booth in a pornographic live peepshow. One image evokes the nostalgia for the once-unified city, Berlin—now “rent,” or divided—through a signifier, the gate, which also stands for the feminine; the other image describes the “rent” between the masculine and the feminine through the surveillance and objectification of the one by the other. As the supporting inscription suggests, it is a relation and scenario that bear a resemblance to the controlling effect of the panopticon prison.

The voyeur, then, sees to know in order to control, perhaps to neutralize, the power of the other of his gaze; and who is traditionally this “other” if not the woman herself? Burgin’s Olympia, 1982, continues the theme of surveillance through a condensation of Manet’s painting Olympia, 1863, which presents the woman as object for contemplation; Hitchcock’s Rear Window; E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale The Sandman, 1816–17, in which a student falls in love with the image of a girl seen through a window who turns out to be a lifesize doll; the case history of Anna O from Freud and Josef Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895); and Jacques Lacan’s linguistic sign for sexual difference, the bathroom doors marked “Men” and “Women.” Within this play on man’s surveillance of the woman, in which she is objectified, idealized, and fetishized (does the bouquet, a fragment from the Manet painting, refer to woman’s “essence,” her “nature”?), Burgin introduces references to the most intensive scrutiny yet made of “woman,” Freud’s psychoanalytic studies. At one juncture, Freud the detective, spellbound by his ideal of the eternal feminine, asks, What does woman (the little girl) want?—to which we may retort, what does Freud want if not to know, to possess, the “enigma” of woman without which he cannot solve the mystery of his own psyche? It is here that Burgin’s image of Lacan’s sign takes on a poignant significance. The woman’s door is open, revealing the mirror reflection of the photographer. The image represents the woman as a passive receptacle penetrated by the man’s gaze, but at the same time he himself is incorporated within the feminine space: what he sees is but a reflection of himself. Here, then, is the conundrum of sexual identity and difference that lures us and Burgin to the fascination of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for the problem of male sexuality and desire is enunciated across the grand mythic dualities—reality/appearance, presence/absence, love/death—contained within its textual space.

If Rear Window is an essay on the voyeuristic gaze which in true Hollywood style eventually “finds” and unites with the object of its desire, Vertigo is a far more subtle reverie on the impossibility of such a union. As in Rear Window, its hero, Scottie, has a profession—he is a detective—that legitimizes his voyeurism (which for us is socially sanctioned only in the context of the cinema). In Vertigo there is no subterfuge as to the real object of his desire—it is the woman, Madeleine, wife of his old college friend Elster (Tom Helmore) who persuades Scottie to place her under surveillance since she has taken to “wandering” and believes herself to be “possessed” by a dead woman. Madeleine is therefore at the outset presented as an enigma. In contradistinction to the sensual Lisa, who is forthright about her own desires, Madeleine is given no voice until after her rescue by Scottie, and has no identity that is not articulated by the male characters—she is first “explained” through Elster, and then framed by Scottie’s vision of her through the car windshield or in doorways. Her sexuality, moreover, is depicted as narcissistic: we see her staring at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, the ancestor of ill repute (with whom she identifies, and whom she partially resembles), and then staring into the water of the Bay before she plunges in, in a virtual union with her own reflected image. In other words, she is constructed as an archetypal other of male phantasy, and her subsequent reconstruction by Scottie through Judy (Novak, in the other side of her double role) is indeed an obsessive act of repetition which refuses to accept the “reality” of Judy; “It can’t matter to you,” he cries, when she objects to her transformation into Madeleine. Caught up in his phantasy, Scottie cannot make love to Judy until she emerges with her hair up—the final act of transformation to Madeleine—a completed “dressing up” which is also an unveiling of nakedness6 in an inversion commonly encountered in the dreamwork.

Scottie, in a way typical of the heroes of Hitchcock’s post-World War II films, suffers a temporary physical impediment, a manifestation of a deeper unconscious problem which it is the work of the narrative to resolve. Scottie’s vertigo is a neurotic symptom which, significantly, affects vision and balance or positioning—he “doesn’t see straight.” What he sees is not reality, not the practical world of Midge, his platonic girl friend (Barbara Bel Geddes), but appearance, an apparition: a hallucinatory condition which, like Jeffries’ voyeurism, is another reflection on our own psychic relation to the cinema screen, for in our relaxed immobility, to paraphrase Metz, are we not like the daydreamer, awake yet susceptible to those workings of the unconscious that compel us to organize our conscious phantasies?7 Hitchcock already suggests this state of sleeping wakefulness in Rear Window, for in our first view of Jeffries we see him dozing in his chair. It is made much more explicit in the first third of Vertigo, during whose slow, dreamlike movement—nothing less than a long caress—we are imbricated with Scottie’s look as he gradually falls in love with Madeleine’s image. The scene in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, referred to by Burgin in the text of one of the six sections of “The Bridge,” most clearly demonstrates how the film takes up the spectator as its subject. We see Scottie follow Madeleine to the gallery, but as he stands observing her by the door, the camera leaves Scottie and tracks across the space, coming to rest behind Madeleine, who is seated in front of Carlotta’s portrait. Through this movement we become sutured into the meaning of the text; we take over Scottie’s look and become him clandestinely comparing the woman with the painting in order to fathom her mysterious self-absorption.

The spell of our identification with Scottie is broken with the closeup of his catatonic, unseeing gaze as he convalesces in the sanatorium following Madeleine’s suicide from the tower and his mental breakdown. Thereafter, as we/Scottie previously surveilled Madeleine, so we/the camera now observe Scottie in his search for the lost woman, a rupture that is completed by Hitchcock’s celebrated dénouement that Judy was in fact masquerading as Madeleine, placing us in the privileged position of knowing what the hero has not yet learned. Scottie’s awakening to (this) reality is indeed the horror of realization that his phantasy ideal was a fake: the woman is not, and cannot be, The Woman; She does not exist for She is a construction born of unconscious processes: a representation.

If, indeed, “woman” is nothing more than a representation, where does this place the man, whose own identity must surely be understood through the sexual difference articulated by the terms “masculine” and “feminine”? Burgin suggests that if one accepts the Lacanian formulation of “The Woman” as nonexistent, then one must also question the status of the man in representation and acknowledge that he also is a fiction.8 The Hitchcock film accepts that questions of sexuality involve the workings of the unconscious which can, at least partially, be revealed through the symbolizing operations of dream and phantasy. The extraordinary power of Vertigo is that Hitchcock so orchestrates his images that they become mapped across the viewer’s phantasy space: in the history of the cinema, Vertigo is one of the most erotic films ever made without ever being sexually explicit. It becomes so provocative, moreover, because it shows Scottie’s sexuality realized not through the real Midge or Judy but through the fictional Madeleine.

The phantasized woman is the key figure in Burgin’s “The Bridge,” which, like Vertigo, is an intertextual construction using those functions of the dreamwork—condensation, displacement, figuration, and inversion—that enable the subject’s imaginary relation to objects to acquire symbolic meaning; the dreamwork is itself a “bridge” between unconscious phantasy and the inhibitory effects of “reality.” In discussing the metaphors associated with the “bridge,” Burgin points out that in psychoanalytical literature on dreams and phantasies it represents “the penis which joins the parents in sexual intercourse and the transitions of birth and death.” Coitus, birth, and death are also specifically linked to water, which has long been associated with the body of the woman. Burgin’s central metaphorical duality, bridge/water, must be primarily understood as representative of the dyads masculine/feminine and birth/death, which are also figured in the moment in Vertigo when Scottie rescues Madeleine from the water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Burgin conflates this moment with two further images: John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting of the death of Ophelia, another suicide by drowning, and one of many historical representations linking woman to water; and Freud’s attraction to his patient “Dora,” which corresponds to the investigative and erotic attachment of Scottie for Madeleine.

Burgin makes clear the mythic significance of his metaphor by referring to Freud’s essay, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” (1910). In his introductory statement to “The Bridge,” Burgin relates the similarities between the syndrome of male desire elucidated by Freud and the conditions surrounding Scottie’s attraction to Madeleine/Judy. In both cases, the determining factors are that the woman is already attached to another man; that she is sexually of bad repute (Madeleine’s identification with Carlotta); that the man’s sexual history is characterized by the repetition of such attachments; and that prominent amongst their rescue phantasies is the phantasy of rescue from water. Freud’s rationale for this syndrome centers on his theory of male Oedipal desire for the mother, who nevertheless belongs sexually to the child’s rival, the father. The phantasized rescue from water corresponds to a “giving birth” to the mother as a reciprocal gift for his own life. In this description Madeleine should stand in the place of the mother, but in Vertigo, the Ophelia painting, and “The Bridge,” the desired woman is represented not as the maternal body, but as the fetish.

Madeleine’s body is so immaculately contoured, so constrained in her tailored suits (in contrast to the unrestrained curves displayed by Judy), that we are tempted to describe her as “phallic.” In this sense she is typical of a kind of female star constructed by Hollywood that reached its apotheosis in the ’50s with Marilyn Monroe and which still survives as an object of nostalgia. Nor should we forget that as the ideal woman is constructed outside the film by the Hollywood machine, so Madeleine’s image within the film is determined solely by the male characters: it is first constructed by the malignant Elster and subsequently reconstructed by Scottie. We might add that Burgin “makes” her a third time.

To understand how the woman as love object becomes fetishized by the man as the phallus we must again return to Freud’s Oedipal story, in which the male child’s fear of castration is precipitated by the traumatic revelation that, contrary to his prior belief, his mother does not possess a penis. Freud relates that the fetish arises as a substitute to mask this lack; but it is an ambivalent object which always betrays the fact of castration even as it effects a disavowal.9 Fetishism disavows difference, hence its tendency to “figure” the woman’s body as the phallus as opposed to the acknowledgment of her female sexuality.

In both Vertigo and “The Bridge” the fetishized image of the desired woman is obsessively linked to death: it is necrophilic. Scottie’s necrophilic relation to her becomes explicit when the transformed Judy appears, bathed in a deathly green light, as a return of the dead Madeleine. Vertigo is, however, inscribed throughout by restless, obsessive returns to the past and death. Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène itself travels through the old locations of San Francisco evoking nostalgia and otherworldliness. Within the narrative it is the mystery of the “possessed” Madeleine that draws Scottie’s impaired vision into a complicity with the past and a rejection of a present reality. Scottie’s “life,” moreover, is bracketed by death. In the rooftop chase that opens the film he loses his foothold and is overcome by vertigo, causing the death of the policeman who reaches to assist him. Scottie hangs clinging to the gutter between the possibilities of life and death, a predicament from which we do not see him rescued. This causes a hiatus in our relation to the narrative (one of several points where Hitchcock refuses to suture us into the fictional space) which maintains him in this state of suspension through most of the film, a breach that is not closed until the near-symmetrical final scene when we see him again on a rooftop after Judy/Madeleine’s fatal fall, but this time standing firm in an ambiguous gesture of redemption or loss.

This gesture is curiously evoked by Burgin’s figure of the drowned Madeleine/Ophelia in two sections of “The Bridge.” The slipping of Scottie into the image of Madeleine illuminates the pathos of Hitchcock’s final scene; for is not death the greatest gift of love? And should we not be moved to accept with Jean Laplanche that “in the unconscious, death would be always death of the other, a destruction or loss we provoke, and we would accede to some intuition of our own mortality only through an ambivalent identification with a loved person whose death we simultaneously fear and desire: essentially in mourning.”10 ?

The look sees to know but it cannot see what is unknown and therefore unapprehendable, only what it has already known. Scottie’s look desires not the living Midge or Judy but the dead Madeleine: it is a look that seeks the past but sees death, and is therefore one of mourning. What is the object of mourning? In Vertigo it is not Judy the real but Madeleine the phantasy. Even so, perhaps she is not the “true” object, for in Scottie’s nightmare sequence do we not see him “become” Madeleine and fall? Hitchcock conflates Scottie with Madeleine just as Burgin conflates the detective with the woman in two further sections of “The Bridge,” and the redeemed Scottie with the drowned Madeleine/Ophelia. Scottie is (in) Madeleine.

What Burgin’s work articulates across the body of Vertigo and through its own erotic phantasy space is that the male look desires to see not the love object per se, who exists only to fulfill a deeper yearning to suture the rent opened up between the self and the maternal body. It desires a return to the self’s undifferentiated pre-Oedipal origins, a time before the social order compelled him to repress the feminine in himself. This repressed self nevertheless remains the object of a perpetual nomadic search, to be found only through displacement in a union with the ideal feminine: his phantasized self. The fascination for the image, for the woman as image, is for this absent other. And with what anguish are we suspended, like Scottie, over the abyss of sexual difference? For as Lacan has stated, there is no sexual relation. There is irreconcilable difference, and only the dream that there could ever be anything other.

Jean Fisher is an artist and writer.



1. Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier,” Screen, vol. 16, no. 2, Summer 1975, p. 14.

2. Alfred Hitchcock, quoted in Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967, p. 117.

3. Metz, op. cit., pp. 14–76.

4. Metz, ibid.

5. Metz. ibid., p. 61.

6. See Hitchcock’s related comments in Truffaut, op. cit., p. 186.

7. Metz, “The Fiction Film and Its Spectator A Metapsychological Study,” New Literary History, vol. 8, Autumn 1976, p. 75.

8. Victor Burgin, “Tea with Madeleine,” Wedge no. 6, Winter 1984.

9. Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism,” 1927, reprinted in On Sexuality, Pelican Freud Library vol. 7, 1977.

10. Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, p. 6.

A more complete discussion of Hitchcock’s work may be found in the following texts: Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1979; and Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films, New York: Castle Books, 1965.