From Christian Metz to Life of Pi: Thoughts on Ideology and Cinema

My purpose in this paper is to argue that scholars have for the most part been mistaken with regard to Christian Metz’s arguments in ‘The Imaginary Signifier’[1] . Commentators seem automatically to assume that, by designating the cinema signifier ‘imaginary’, Metz is thereby being critical of that imaginariness. Against such claims, I instead argue that if the cinema signifier is imaginary for Metz, then this is not necessarily a bad thing. And so too, to further the point, if this imaginary signifier is deemed ideological, then this is not necessarily a bad thing either. To the extent that the cinema signifier is imaginary – and I would argue that the imaginariness of the cinema signifier is exacerbated by the conventions of continuity and transparency associated with the Hollywood style and with popular cinema more generally – and to the extent that this signifier is ideological, then these are properties that should not be dismissed, criticized and derided. Rather, they are properties of the cinema – a popular, commercial cinema – and that is a proposition worth taking seriously.

Of course, the mere mention of the term ideology opens up a rather tricky can of worms. In what follows I will defend what might be understood by the term ideology – that to call something ideological is not necessarily to dismiss it as unworthy or pernicious – and I will also defend that which might be considered imaginary from the point of view of the cinematic signifier. Why might I wish to do such a thing? Certainly I believe Metz has been misunderstood on this point, so that is one issue. Additionally, I would like to defend the notion of story or narrative in the cinema and the desire for films to erase their material conditions in order to better present themselves as stories to present themselves as histoire (story) rather than discours (discourse). The erasure of discours might indeed make such films and their stories more imaginary, and it might also separate them from the so-called ‘real conditions of existence’ (as any scholar influenced by Althusser might say). But the upshot of all this is that such films and such stories can open the way onto other conditions of existence, to the existence of another world elsewhere. In short, films, girded by the imaginary signifier, can offer potentially challenging visions of another kind of world.

By way of an example I concentrate here on the film version of Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee (2012). The film, adapted from the novel by Yann Martel (2002), frames its overarching narrative around a distinction between an ‘imaginary’ rendering of events – the version of events which features a 450 pound Bengal tiger – and a ‘real’ recounting of events, this latter involving murder, treachery, cannibalism and unfathomable misery. The tiger tale is of wonder, fantasy, endeavour and inspiration, in which each of the human characters of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ story is replaced – imaginarily – by an animal: the cook becomes a hyena, a Taiwanese sailor becomes a zebra, and Pi’s mother an orangutan. In the imaginary rendering of events, Pi is both himself and the tiger at one and the same time. In the ‘real’, human story, by contrast, all is bleak, treacherous, full of violence and misery. I would like to suggest that Life of Pi therefore offers something akin to a split between the imaginary ideology of histoire on the one hand (the tiger tale), and the real of discours on the other (the human story), and thus can be seen as offering a kind of meta-commentary on the nature of cinematic narrative per se. By the end of the film we know very well that the tiger tale is not real or true, that it is a magical, imaginative or ideological fabrication; and when we hear Pi recount the ‘real’, human story near the end of the film, we are left in no doubt that the tiger tale is a distortion. And yet, all the same, this does little to retard the excitement or pleasure the tiger tale exerts, and the film (and the novel) knows this: it is the magical, unbelievable tale that is more engrossing and captivating than the ‘real’, human explanation of events.

Of course, the complaint will emerge: isn’t this ideological? Isn’t that precisely how ideology functions, by covering over the truth of reality with a fabricated, fanciful fiction? Then, accordingly, the task of cultural critique or film scholarship should be to lift the veil of ideology in order to expose the real conditions of existence. However, as I will demonstrate, such issues cannot be so easily and neatly calculated. What the tiger tale of Life of Pi demonstrates is that what is imaginary or ideological does not automatically hide what is beneath it. Rather, what is imaginary and ideological coexists with those things that are deemed ‘real’. In short, the hiding that ideology performs is, at one and the same time, a revealing of what is hidden. The tiger tale is effective precisely because it both hides and reveals the real conditions of existence; it is effective because it both covers over and yet reveals the ‘human story’ too.

The Imaginary Signifier
To begin with I want to lay out some arguments pertaining to Metz’s ‘imaginary signifier’. Criticisms of Metz are a dime a dozen. Consider D. N. Rodowick’s assessment:

Metz suggests that the aim of narrative in film is to efface film’s material conditions as a discourse in order to better present itself as story; in sum, the diegesis or fictional world is given as the expression of a signified without a signifier. In Metz, there is no doubt that this situation is ideological.[2]

There are a number of well known details to account for here: the imaginary signifier of the cinema is one in which cinema’s material conditions are replaced by a diegesis or story (histoire) that is immaterial; i.e., imaginary. This signifier of the cinema thus peddles itself as a signified without a signifier, as histoire without discours, for the material conditions of signification are absent. Finally, for Rodowick here when he reads Metz, what all of this adds up to is a condition of erasure, distortion or misrecognition; precisely because the cinema signifier is imaginary, it must also be ideological: it must be wrong, bad, untrue, deceptive. From Rodowick’s point of view, then, the entire task of ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ (and related articles – Rodowick’s specific target here is ‘Story / Discourse’[3] ) is to establish a critique of cinema on the basis of the imaginary signifier that lies at the heart of its properties.

Similar criticisms are put forward by David Bordwell. For Metz, writes Bordwell, the “impression of histoire is an illusion; the film is discursive, but covertly so: it ‘masquerades’ as histoire[4] . Such terms are, of course, negative: illusion and masquerade are negative conditions of film viewing, so that the histoire or story presented to the viewer, on Bordwell’s interpretation of Metz, is a distortion, an error. Indeed, all viewing of such films – typically the kinds of mainstream films that foreground histoire and conceal discours – will be illusions under such conditions; such is Bordwell’s summation of Metz’s position. By extension, then, for Bordwell, the task of ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ is to demonstrate how mainstream, Hollywood films disguise their discours behind the veil erected by the imaginariness of histoire, an imaginary veil that renders such films illusionistic. I should not need to point out further that Bordwell must also assume that the histoire is ideological for Metz, while discours pertains to the reality lying beneath the ideological barrier.

Often a link is made between the writings of Jean-Louis Baudry[5] and those of Metz, as in the following case:

Cinema is the imaginary signifier, that is, it involves a process of signification turning on an absence that it seeks to fill but never finally does. In the gap between presence and absence a lack constantly reappears, and it is this lack that renews desire, so guaranteeing the perpetuation of cinema as institution. … Central to the thinking of both Baudry and Metz was the theme of misrecognition devolving on cinematic identification.[6]

Here, again, the cinema signifier is a product of misrecognition – once again the terrain of distortion and illusion comes to the fore. In doing so, the cinema as (mainstream, Hollywood) institution ushers forth an imaginary play between desire’s temptation and fulfillment, a play that makes going to the cinema a pleasurable experience. At all times, however, this pleasure is merely the ‘false’ pleasure of an illusionistic and distorting ideology implanted by the imaginariness of the cinema signifier.

Such views on the ideology of the cinematographic apparatus might easily be attributable to Baudry, but it is not so easy to find instances where Metz criticizes the cinema in terms of the ideology of its mechanisms or signifier. In one of the few instances in which he comes close to putting his finger on something like ideology, Metz merely claims that, yes, cinema was born in Western societies in an age of individualistic bourgeois capitalism, and that such social arrangements certainly contributed to the forming and shaping of the forms and institutions of cinema.[7] But even here Metz does not use the term ideology, and he is not being critical of bourgeois capitalism. Rather, he merely notes it as one of the properties that contributed to what the cinema signifier was to become.

So what does Metz himself write? When trying to analyse the cinema signifier in terms of its imaginary status, Metz also brought to attention the imaginariness of the cinema’s third machine; that is, he made a claim for the imaginary relation critics and theorists strive to maintain towards their object of study. Metz noted that film criticism and theory – certainly as it operated from the 1950s into the 1970s – drew sharp distinctions between films that were to be exalted and those that were to be summarily dismissed. “It is often”, he wrote, “for the purpose of exalting one kind of cinema that another has been violently attacked: the oscillation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the immediacy of the restoration mechanism” – that is, the restoration by means of which in the face of ‘bad’ cinema an alternative, ‘good’ cinema is unearthed – “then appear in all their clarity”.[8] Film theory is thus characterized by Metz as an earnest endeavour to forge distinctions between the ‘bad objects’ of cinema and those ‘good cinematic objects’ by means of which the cinema itself can be redeemed and advocated. Having made this point, Metz then goes on to claim that much film theory has in fact been grounded on the exaltation of good cinematic objects: if a theorist discovers a film to be adored, a theory will then be fleshed out in order to ensure this film is claimed for the goodness of cinema as such: the theory will confirm the theorist’s good taste for cinema objects.[9]

And so it serves to suggest that Metz himself would not follow the path of dividing cinematic objects into ‘bad’ and ‘good’. Metz thus shies away from all value judgments on the nature of the cinema signifier. To call the ‘imaginary signifier’ and histoire necessarily bad – or negative, or an illusion or a misrecognition – is not at all Metz’s aim. At the end of the day, what is at stake for Metz in a theory of the cinema are matters of determining the properties of film and cinema – what he wanted to call the ‘language’ of cinema; that is, ways of accurately describing and understanding the specific aspects of what cinema does, how it looks and sounds, what kinds of meanings it is capable of producing. These properties[10] need not be properties that are either good or bad. Rather, in the manner of a scientist – the science of semiology here – Metz desired to catalogue and classify cinematic codes and conventions, not to pass judgment on which codes were to be advocated and which conventions dismissed as incorrect or unworthy.

That, then, was Metz’s aim: to argue that the cinema, as it had become popularized, known and conventionally accepted, had as a grounding property something that he called the ‘imaginary signifier’. He refrained from declaring that this imaginary signifier was either good or bad; he simply claimed that this is what the cinema had become – and he is writing of commercial, feature films, what is commonly referred to as ‘the cinema’ or movies (as when someone says, “I’m going to the movies tonight”).

We can in fact find a very similar argument in Bordwell’s work. In Making Meaning Bordwell draws attention to typical practices of film reviewing and claims that they more or less follow a rhetorical formula:

A good film has property p.
This film has (or lacks) property p.
This is a good (or bad) film.[11]

Much of what passes for film theory or film commentary still, it seems to me, follows such a procedure. Even more emphatically, Bordwell singles out the centrality of the comparative argument which pits one type of film, against another, “an ordinary genre film”, for example, “against an auteur masterpiece, a ‘classical’ film counterposed to a modernist or oppositional work”.[12] Here, the ‘good’ film is pitted against the ‘bad’ in the name of a theory. Bordwell’s own practices of historical poetics and cognitive film theory offer ways of getting beyond the good versus bad value judgments he foregrounds here. And yet, I would argue at one and the same time that Bordwell’s aims in this regard are very much in accord with the kinds of aims Metz had in mind. Metz’s aim was not to make the imaginary signifier of cinema a bad property of cinema; the imaginary signifier was not envisaged by Metz as a property of bad films. Rather, for Metz, the imaginary signifier is a property of cinema per se.

Life of Pi
Life of Pi can certainly be considered a mainstream, popular and financially successful Hollywood film. 3-D or not, Life of Pi is a film that embraces the conditions of cinema’s imaginary signifier in ways that I do not have the space to detail here. What I would like to suggest is that it is a film that seems to ram down our throats the ideological imaginariness of the cinema signifier. As though to mock us, it flagrantly exhibits for us the imaginariness, artifice and fakery of its central story. As I have already mentioned, the film (and the novel on which the film is based) consists of two stories: an ‘animal story’ and a ‘human story’ (to be accurate, these two stories are contained within the overarching framing narrative that contains the other two narrated stories told in flashback). Both of the stories give accounts of how the film’s main character, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), managed to survive for 227 days in a lifeboat after the ship on which he had been travelling was sunk. The film and the novel present their endings with the same question: Pi, who has narrated both of these stories to us, asks which story is the better one, the animal story or the human one? All viewers and readers should be convinced that the animal story is the better one – both the novel and the film devote much greater time, energy and detail to this story, for it is the one which features a 450 pound Bengal tiger and it is captivating, suspenseful and magical in varying degrees. The human story, by contrast, is rather concise, remarkably so in the film: there, the human story is merely narrated, we are given no flashback sequences. With the tiger story, by contrast, we are presented with vivid flashbacks rendered resplendent with glorious computer graphics effects. Furthermore, the human story is bleak and gruesome, with murders and cannibalism to boot. It is easy to prefer the story with the tiger.

And yet, it is also easy to declare that the story with the tiger is an ideological one: it disguises or distorts the real, human story – the one with murders and cannibalism – and replaces it with a magical story of human endurance, marvelous tigers and floating islands. It could be said that the trauma or horror of the human story is too real to cope with or acknowledge; it is far easier to dress it up with tales of mystery, imagination and computer effects rather than face the truth of what really happened. The tiger story can thus be considered an imagined, ideological re-rendering of a human story that is too difficult or traumatic to face in all its truth or reality. Life of Pi might even be taken as an exemplar of Althusser’s key definition of ideology: “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”[13] The tiger story can be seen as a representation of Pi’s imaginary relationship to the real conditions – the human story – of his lifeboat saga.

In what follows, analogies are drawn between aspects of the Life of Pi and some of Metz’s arguments in ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ by way of the psychoanalytic conceptions of the ‘mirror stage’ and ‘fetishism’. Ultimately what I want to infer is that the narrative of Life of Pi foregrounds for us something like a distinction between histoire and discours; that is, on the one hand, between a cinematic practice that embraces the conditions of the imaginary signifier and, on the other hand, a potentially different kind of practice that would eschew or expose the histoire as discours, and thus also expose the imaginariness of the cinema signifier as fraudulent and distorted. Life of Pi refuses to critique its own imaginariness and instead advocates histoire over and above discours, as well as advocating ideology over ‘real conditions’, with histoire and ideology offering potentially valid ways of framing and understanding reality as such. We might even see Ang Lee’s own comments on the film as trying to demonstrate the ‘God dimension’ as being relevant here. He claims that Life of Pi is about exploring “an emotional connection to the unknown”, of showing us the importance of “a belief in something you can’t prove”.[14] In short, what a film like Life of Pi achieves is the direct opposite of what film scholars have for a long time attributed to the films of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s films, we are told, disrupt the functioning of the imaginary signifier by declaring themselves as discours; they are “reflexively critical” of the naivety of histoire; they lay bare the marks of enunciation, even as they appear part of the Hollywood style.[15] Sirk’s films show us “Hollywood against itself”. Life of Pi, by contrast, shows us Hollywood revelling in all of its stylistic naivety and bombast (the Blu-ray extras inform us, for example, that the film took four years to make).

The Tiger and the Mirror
One way in which Life of Pi foregrounds the imaginariness central to the cinema signifier is by way of the tiger identity assumed by Pi when he is aboard the lifeboat. There, Pi’s identity is split: on the one hand he is represented by a human figure that is overtly himself, while on the other hand the tiger also represents some part of Pi’s psyche or person. The animal-identity accords with the other imagined animals: the hyena represents the vicious, ugly French cook (played by Gérard Depardieu), the zebra a Taiwanese sailor, and the orangutan Pi’s mother. These might all be said, in one way or another, to be representations of Pi’s imaginary relationship to his real conditions of existence, as though the animals were something of an imaginary screen placed over the human figures in order to make their real natures more palatable, more comprehensible.

But what of the Pi-tiger split? What can be said about this ‘splitting of the ego’? From a Freudian point of view[16] it seems clear enough that those parts of his psyche that Pi cannot consider as part of his true sense of himself – violence, fury, murder, not to mention a capacity to eat meat – are projected onto the figure of the tiger. By projecting such instincts onto the tiger-figure, Pi manages to maintain a sure sense of self-certainty; he can declare to himself, “I’m not really like that; rather, it was another part of me that did those things, a part of me that is not really me”.

A great deal too can be declared of these issues in relation to Jacques Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage, and it is here that the Life of Pi takes an interesting step in the direction of an inherent cinematicity. As is well known, in Lacan’s theory[17] , the mirror stage operates as a way for the child to obtain a first sense of identity in the social world. It is with the mirror stage that the child first discovers itself as a being who can say ‘I’. Prior to any sense of society, as part of a world that knows only an all-encompassing and auto-erotic Real in which nothing that is ‘other’ can be said to exist, the child suddenly stumbles upon an awareness that other things do indeed exist outside of its own sense of a self.

We know all too well that both Baudry and Metz utilized Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage for the cinema. However, whereas Baudry takes this analogy at face value and assigns an ideological value to the imaginary relation thereby established, Metz does no such thing. Rather, he argues that the situation of the cinema is similar in some ways to that of the mirror stage, but that it is significantly different enough to call the cinematic situation one in which a “series of mirror-effects”[18] is set in train, rather than offering a regressive return to the mirror stage as such.

If Lacan intended that the mirror stage offered a sense of some kind of subjective permanence, then that offer would only ever be very short lived. Rather, what is more likely for the child is that, immediately following the jubilation of the discovery of the ego (‘I’) in the mirror, the child suddenly realizes its alienation, both from itself but also from something outside itself which will, in time, come to be known as a ‘world’. Thus, the mirror stage might hold out a promise of jubilation and mastery for the child, but this promise is immediately snatched away by alienation and the sense of a split or gap that now lies at the beating heart of subjectivity. There is no question that, for Lacan, from the outset, “I is an other”.[19] Quite how the conditions of the analogy between the mirror stage and the screen-mirror relation ever suggested some kind of condition of perceptual mastery, a position most fervently argued for by Baudry, I will never know.[20] Additionally, I remain puzzled that a whole generation of film scholars now associates this position – ‘apparatus theory’ – with unified subjectivity or unified spectatorship.[21] Metz takes up these issues in ‘The Imaginary Signifier’ on the back of Baudry’s analyses, but only insofar as to complicate them. “Thus”, will Metz write, for example, “the constitution of the signifier in the cinema depends on a series of mirror-effects organised in a chain, and not on a single reduplication”.[22]

Jacqueline Rose, writing in 1977, was perhaps the first to notice this incongruity between Lacan’s notion of a split subject and film theory’s enthusiasm for decrying the cinema spectator’s subjective unity and mastery. After a long description of Lacan’s theoretical twists and turns, she writes,

[T]hese instances point to what Lacan will call the constitution of the subject in the moment of its splitting …, a moment which we can already discern in the fiction of self-representation – the subject sees itself as a whole only by being placed elsewhere – of the mirror-stage.[23]

In other words, the mirror stage does not bring into being a narcissistically jubilant, unified, centred, masterful self; rather, it introduces a sense of self only insofar as it also immediately opens up a dialectic between self and other – the self can only be established on the basis of also being split (once again, ‘I is an other’). Not only does the self see what is out there, but what is out there now also sees this self – and much of Lacan’s seminar on ‘The Gaze as object a’ will take up such issues[24] . What is at stake there is simply that the imaginary does not exist on its own; rather, instances of the imaginary are always overshadowed by the symbolic. Do I need to point out that Metz knows this too: “the constitution of the symbolic is only achieved through and above the play of the imaginary”[25] ? Or, to put it another way, no ego or I exists on its own; it is always overshadowed by a social dimension; the realm of a symbolic Other. Another commentator puts it this way: “the subject as such can only be known in the place or locus of the Other. There is no way to define the subject as self-consciousness.” [26]

If these might be some of the conditions of social existence which Metz will then extend to theories of cinematic spectatorship (“I am myself the place where this really perceived imaginary accedes to the symbolic by its inauguration as the signifier of a certain type of institutionalised social activity called the ‘cinema’”[27] ), then Life of Pi points to the complications involved in such a position. In Life of Pi, for all intents and purposes, what happens after the ship the Tsimtsum, the name of which already opens up the question of what a world is and how a world comes to exist[28] – is wrecked, the world and thus the symbolic order Pi Patel has known ceases to exist. When he finds himself alone on a lifeboat, the social or symbolic order by means of which he has existed as an ‘I’ now ceases. Perhaps, then, what is crucial about his invention of an alter-ego in the figure of the tiger is that it enables him to maintain the fiction of a self by virtue of his invention of a new ‘social’ realm in which he is accompanied by a tiger; a new symbolic order. It is as though, therefore, Pi invents a new mirror stage for himself – a “fiction of self-representation”, as Rose puts it; “the subject sees itself as a whole only by being placed elsewhere.[29]

All of this is so many ways of saying that once the child understands, by way of the mirror stage and its separation from the mother – what Melanie Klein called the “depressive position” – that it is a body separate from other bodies and also from a world that contains those bodies, then this child needs to finds ways of comprehending or understanding how that separation works and what kind of world contains those bodies. In short, as I have already tried to suggest, the mirror stage constitutes a moment in which the child is initially thrust into the social world, so that its accession to the imaginary is at once also an opening onto the symbolic order. It seems to me that Life of Pi’s tiger tale tries to play out some of these dramas.

These tensions are thus in play in the tale Pi tells us in Life of Pi. Who or what is the tiger in this tale? I have already suggested that the tiger is, for Pi, evidence of a splitting of the ego, and of the mirror stage that is constitutive of that splitting. But it also signifies that other split which the film foregrounds: the division between imagination and reason – that is, between Pi’s own loves of religion, storytelling and fantasy, in contrast with Pi’s father’s insistence on the priority of reason, calculation and pragmatic realism. None other than the shadow of Oedipus here, for Life of Pi is a coming-of-age tale in which the character of Pi negotiates his relationship with his mother and father, which is at once also a negotiation between the imaginary and the symbolic, between religion and reason. In Pi’s tale of the tiger, it is none other than the tiger upon which these ambivalences are projected, for the tiger is a figure of fear and hatred (and thus of Pi’s father), but is also a figure of imagination and wonder, a sign of the power of storytelling and religious awe (and thus a figure associated with Pi’s mother). The splitting of Pi’s ego goes still further, for he must, by way of the Oedipal struggle, also incorporate aspects of his father into himself (he must ‘identify’ with him, as it were), for while at sea he must adopt his father’s characteristics of pragmatic realism and rational calculation.

The Ideology of a Tiger
This all means, of course, that the tiger – a figure of Pi’s imagination, an apparition invented by Pi in order to help him to cope with the trauma of being lost at sea – shows us nothing less than ideology in an unadulterated form: the function of the image of the tiger is to resolve contradiction. A contradiction between religion and reason? The tiger condenses and resolves it. A contradiction between religion and science? The tiger smooths it over. A contradiction between desire for the mother and hatred of the father? The tiger resolves it ….

As if that were not enough, one can even point to the tale of the tiger as one which resolves ‘really existing’ historical contradictions as well: this ideological veil will offer ways of avoiding the true-real of the family’s flight from the suspension of democracy in India in 1976, to the bloodshed that surrounded that historical trauma, to the family’s escape and the sinking of the ship which is surely an allegory of India’s torments at this historical moment. The tiger story completely evades the reality of all that, even more so in the film than the novel – the novel at least mentions it as a key reason for the family’s flight[30] ; the film makes the family’s decision to move to Canada a matter of business rather than politics. And surely that is what ideology is: imaginarily reordering reality in such a way as to allow the real conditions of existence to dissolve, to be hidden, buried.

For many commentators, that is quite simply how ideology works: when uncomfortable or contradictory elements must co-exist side-by-side, then those contradictions are resolved or ‘ironed out’ by ideology. For Pi, the contradictions are smoothed over by his invention of the tiger tale.

Films and Fetishes
For a film theorist like Baudry, precisely the same kind of ideological operation is at work in the popular cinema: any contradiction, that is, any sense of alienation or splitting that might plague the existence of individuals in everyday life, can be smoothed over by the processes of cinema viewing. For Baudry, the act of cinema spectatorship is one in which symbolic contradictions and social alienation are ironed out by techniques such as continuity editing and transparent storytelling, so that what is delivered to the viewer is a sense of flawless mastery and unity.

If Baudry relies largely on Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage (and, in another essay, on the logic of the Freudian dreamwork[31] ), Metz, for his part, places a good deal of emphasis on Freud’s notion of fetishism, though Metz also pays attention to the mirror stage (as we have seen), identification and the mechanisms of voyeurism. In relation to fetishism, the functioning of the cinema signifier plays a similar role to that which a fetish object signifies for the fetishist. Metz writes,

the fetish signifies the penis as absent, it is its negative signifier; supplementing it, it puts a ‘fullness’ in place of lack, but in so doing it also affirms that lack. It resumes within itself the structure of disavowal and multiple belief. [32]

And such is the structure of the fetish: the penis is both absent and yet covered over by that which replaces it; it is at one and the same time a fullness and a lack; it is a problem or contradiction that is also pointed to at the same time it is fetishistically overcome. So too for the cinema: it is an absence (the lack pertaining to the images on the screen itself, for they are not there; rather, they have been transported here to the cinema from elsewhere), that nevertheless appears to provide a fullness, the plenitude of the images it shows and the stories it tells in its commercial modes of continuity and transparency. The cinema’s magical, fetishistic effect is that it achieves this fullness, a plenitude that seems to throb with a generosity that can surpass reality itself, at the same time as we know that what is there are mere images and nothing else. We know very well… but all the same ….

For ideology critique, the very thought of a fetish that covers over a lack could only ever be the source of a problem.[33] Ideology critique assumes that the revelation of what lies beneath the ideological veil will somehow bring about a truer or more definitive resolution of the lack or contradiction that the ideology is presumed to be hiding. Life of Pi considers this option, but refuses to see it as a definitive option. After Pi recounts the ‘true’ human story, he further explains that the human story doesn’t provide us with any kind of explanation or reason for what occurred, that both stories – the tiger tale and the human one – managed to lead Pi to the same place. Looking back, Pi declares, “I’ve told you two stories about what happened out in the ocean, neither of which explains the sinking of the ship, and no one can prove which story is true and which is not. In both stories, the ship sinks, my family dies, and I suffer …. So”, he adds, “which story do you prefer?”

Slavoj Žižek has recently drawn attention to this problem of ideology by making a distinction between a fetishistic mode of ideology on the one hand, and a symptomal mode on the other. He carefully writes that “the fetish is the embodiment of the lie that enables us to sustain the unbearable truth.”[34] By contrast, Žižek continues, “the symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of false appearances”. For the symptom, then, if there is a truth to be found then we actively avoid it, we do not speak about it, we put it to the backs of the our minds; in short, we repress it. And yet, by repressing it, it returns with violent force in the form of a symptom. This mode of ideology therefore presumes that the function of ideology is one of hiding, so that what is hidden is effectively removed from the sphere of discourse; its existence becomes unconscious, unacknowledged, unknown. The task of ideology critique is then to unveil what has been hidden, to point out the eruptive force of symptomatic social malaises and thus to identify the elements of the symbolic order that have been ideologically repressed.

By contrast, with the fetishistic mode of ideology, one invents a lie that allows the truth to be sustained: in Life of Pi, even though Pi ‘invents’ the tiger tale, this tale nevertheless allows all of the ‘true’ story’s depth to be maintained, however unbearable it is; eg., the murderous, cannibal cook; Pi’s father’s prohibitive, stern rationality; the murder of Pi’s mother right in front of his eyes …. In short, here, if anything is hidden, then the process of hiding is at the same time one of revealing.

And isn’t it possible to see the cinema apparatus working in precisely this fetishistic way? The cinema screen does not merely hide things from us, it also, at the same time as it hides, reveals the world to us. Thus, to be a ‘signified without a signifier’ is not merely the cinema’s way of hiding the signifier; rather, it also reveals this signifier as well, even if this signifier is an imaginary one.

And so too for the Lacanian imaginary itself: the imaginary does not simply hide the symbolic and thus resolve the contradictory signifiers of the symbolic by way of an imaginary unity and plenitude. Rather, the imaginary is born in concert with the symbolic so that it both hides and reveals the symbolic at one and the same time. This would certainly be one way of describing how cinema’s imaginary signifier functions.

If I have been correct here, then Life of Pi offers something like a metacommentary on these issues. It presents two stories – one that can be considered an imaginary histoire, while the other presents to us the real of discours (from Žižek’s perspective we might see the former as the fetishistic mode of ideology, while the latter would be an eruption of the symptomal mode of ideology) – yet it refuses to declare that the ‘true’ version of events is somehow more true or valid that the imaginary one. We are in fact supposed to leave the film (call this the film’s overt ‘message’) with the knowledge that the imaginary, fabricated – ideological – tiger tale has been more informative, evocative, substantial – and pleasurable – than was the ‘true’ re-telling of events.

And I would like to believe that such a defence of the imaginary could be extended to offer a defence of what Metz terms the ‘imaginary signifier’ and its fetishistic lure. This boils down to declaring that the shadows, dreams and fabrications offered to us by virtue of Hollywood cinema’s so-called strategies of deception and illusion – its hiding of discours beneath histoire – need not be considered negative aspects of what cinema has become (and still is). Rather, let us admire and celebrate the cinema and its imaginary signifier.



Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 85-126.

Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘The Apparatus’, Camera Obscura 1, 1976, 104-126.

Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’, in B. Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods Volume II: An Anthology, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA., and London: University of California Press, 1985), pp.  531-542.

David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. (Cambridge, MA., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Jean-Louis Comolli, (1985). ‘Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth-of-Field’, in Nichols, B. (ed.). Movies and Methods Volume II, Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA., and London: University of California Press, 40-57.

Joan Copjec, ‘The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan’, in Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, (New York: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 15-38.

Elizabeth Cowie, Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, (London: Macmillan, 1997).

Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama’. in Nichols, B. (ed.). Movies and Methods Volume II: An Anthology, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985). 165-189.

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence’, in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, ed. Angela Richards, (Pelican Books, 1984), pp. 457-64.

Jacques Lacan, ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1977).

Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, (London and New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 75-81.

Jacques Lacan, ‘Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis’, in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, (London and New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 82-101.

Robert Lapsley, R., and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

É. Laurent, ‘Alienation and Separation (I)’, in Feldstein, R., et. al., Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 19-28.

Yann Martel, Life of Pi, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002).

Christian Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’. In Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. C. Britton, et al., (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 1-88.

Christian Metz, ‘Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism)’. In Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. C. Britton et. al. (London: MacMillan, 1982), pp. 89-98.

David Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory, 2nd Edition, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Jacqueline Rose, ‘The Imaginary’, in Sexuality in the Field of Vision, (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 167-98.

Richard Rushton, The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).

Florence Stratton, ‘“Hollow at the Core”: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi’, Studies in Canadian Literature 29:2, 2004, pp. 5-21.

Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, (London and New York: Verso, 2008).


[1] Christian Metz (trans. C. Britton, et al.), ‘The Imaginary Signifier’. In Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp.1-88.
[2] David Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory, 2nd ed, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 13.
[3] Christian Metz, ‘Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism)’. In Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. C. Britton et. al. (London: MacMillan, 1982), pp. 89-98.
[4] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p.22.
[5] Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’, in B. Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods Volume II: An Anthology, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA., and London: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 531-542.
[6] Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 86.
[7]  See Metz’s statement in ‘Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism)’ p. 64.
[8]  Christian Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p.10.
[9] I make a good deal of this argument in The Reality of Film (2011).
[10] Metz calls them this in ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p. 13
[11] David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. (Cambridge, MA., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 37.
[12] David Bordwell, ibid. p. 214.
[13] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, p. 109.
[14] Lee makes these statements on the Blu-ray extras (Twentieth Century Fox).
[15] See Thomas Elsaesser’s classic account, ‘Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama’.
[16] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence’, pp. 457-64.
[17] Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, (London and New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 75-81.
[18] Christian Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p. 51.
[19] See Jacques Lacan, ‘Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis’, p.96.
[20] Baudry’s argument is bolstered by an appeal to monocular perspective, as was the case with many other analyses of the period: Comolli 1985; Heath 1974; Metz 1982a, p. 49.
[21] The impressive exceptions are Elizabeth Cowie (1997) and Joan Copjec (1996).
[22] Christian Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p. 51.
[23] Jacqueline Rose, ‘The Imaginary’, in Sexuality in the Field of Vision, (London: Verso, 1986), p. 183.
[24] Jacques Lacan, ‘Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a’, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: The Hogarth Press. 1977)
[25] Christian Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p. 51.
[26] É. Laurent, ‘Alienation and Separation (I)’, in Feldstein, R., et. al., Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), p. 22.
[27] Metz, p. 49.
[28] See Florence Stratton, ‘“Hollow at the Core”: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi’, Studies in Canadian Literature 29:2, 2004) pp. 14-15.
[29] Rose, ibid. p.183.
[30] Yann Martel, Life of Pi, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002), p. 78
[31] Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘The Apparatus’, Camera Obscura 1, 1976), pp. 104-126.
[32] Metz, ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, p. 71.
[33] See Heath 1974; cf Rushton 2011, pp. 96-105.
[34] Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, (London and New York: Verso, 2008), p. 296.

About the Author

Richard Rushton

About the Author

Richard Rushton

Richard Rushton is Senior Lecturer in Film at Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of The Politics of Hollywood Cinema (2013), Cinema After Deleuze (2012), and The Reality of Film (2011).View all posts by Richard Rushton →