imaginary signifier

Related Overviews

Christian Metz (1931—1993)

Jacques Lacan (1901—1981) French psychoanalyst and writer

Roman Jakobson (1896—1982) Russian-born American linguist


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A term used by Metz to refer to the cinematic signifier—the medium of film. ‘What is characteristic of the cinema is not the imaginary that it may happen to represent, but the imaginary that it is from the start, the imaginary that constitutes it as a signifier.’ It is argued to have a ‘dual character’, involving both photographically and auditorily faithful perceptual plenitude and at the same time the unreality of fiction (we know we are watching a film). Its perceptual transparency renders it an absent signifier. Metz relates the concept to Lacan's imaginary—the cinematic signifier is theorized as inducing identifications related to those of the mirror phase (where the screen is the mirror), though in cinema the identification is paradoxically argued to be with oneself as ‘a condition of the possibility of the perceived’. Prior to Metz's book The Imaginary Signifier (1977), film theorists had ignored the role of the spectator.

Subjects: Media Studies — Linguistics.

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