The power of symbols in culture and in the minds of men and women is not rooted only in its duality and in its capacity to express the inexpressible; its performativity or its “symbolic efficacy” lies, above all, in the possibility of presenting that which is contingent or imaginary as obvious, necessary, and unavoidable.
That competence to present as natural that which is, at least partially, imaginary is a particular evidence of the body. This is so much so that nobody doubts its “biological” nature, its very existence, and the experience of the body is far from the different operations which society or culture have performed—and still perform—on that body. In the style of what Marcel Mauss thought of as “techniques of the body” in the 1930s, a concept which would be taken up by Michel Foucault (1975 ) and his idea of the body as the meeting place for power relations and knowledge. That is where the vision of the industrial revolution and capitalism building a body specifically made for the machine and for discipline—also demanded by the national state in the battlefields—originates.
After these general considerations, in this essay we will present different fragmentary situations in the history of art, articulating their methods and approaches with those of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The conjuncture will be provided by the concept “Sovereign Image”, in the sense that is given to this expression by Jacques-Alain Miller (1995 ), when he proposes this syntagma as that element of the imaginary register which could be equated with the “master signifier” in the symbolic register.
Although signifiers are not characterized by occupying a privileged place—we rather speak of equality of the signifiers which are defined by opposition and which are susceptible of metaphor and metonymy—it is by an analytical operation that a signifier is characterized as master, unsuccessfully representing the subject. The subject is an effect of the movement of the chain; it is not an individual, a person, but a subject of the unconscious that is represented by a signifier, for another signifier. If the master signifier is the main element of the symbolic register, the Sovereign Image will be the main element of the imaginary register.
The expression has its difficulties, as Miller explains, because the same movement of proposing it as an element of the imaginary requires its significantization. In psychoanalysis, an image reigns when it acquires a symbolic status. The same could be said in general of those objects or situations to which the history of art has directed its attention. However, while it is obvious that images abound in the history of art, the Sovereign Image has its own characteristics which make it different from the signifier, the main one being that it does not represent the subject.
The Sovereign Image is coordinated with jouissance. It is that in which the imaginary is tied to jouissance. This is what can be read as an example in Freud’s text (1936 ) Letter to Romain Rolland (A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis) where he relates an effect of subjective division experienced by himself when he arrived and saw the Acropolis for the first time: he says that there was in him a person who knew that the Acropolis really existed and, at the same time, another person who seemed to doubt it.
In psychoanalysis, the images that dominate can be enumerated, and Miller (1995 ) summarizes them in three in Elucidation of Lacan: 1. one’s own body, 2. the body of the Other, and 3. the phallus. We suggest reading this text to delve into the concept of the Sovereign Image.
This essay aims to take Miller’s hypothesis to the field of art history, as a game, as a bet, but as a serious matter, to address some Sovereign Images in art over the centuries.
In his text, Miller begins this game and ventures that the prevailing image in Greek antiquity is the face. The Greek word for face is prosopon and it designates that which we present to the eye, more precisely “in front of the face or mask.” In Latin it is the origin of the term “person.” Prosopon, then, is in opposition to the rest of the body, which is always more or less dressed, not given to the naked eye.
It was the face in ancient Greece, but what are the Sovereign Images which tied a jouissance in the subjectivities of other eras? We will try to give some answers in the following sections.