The Visor Effect

Posted by Matt Foley on April 16, 2009 in Blog tagged with
Derridean readings of literary texts, or more general Deconstructive readings, are common in contemporary scholarly circles. His arguments on dissemintation and logocentrism are amongst the preferred tools for critical readings but in terms of elucidating the Gothic it is hard to over look Derrida’s philosophical portmanteau of ‘ontology’ and ‘haunting’. ‘Hauntology’ attacks the spaces where ontology cannot reach; it voyages into the liminal zones where binary oppositions of real/unreal, presence/absence and alive/dead disintegrate and generate cognitive dissonance in the subject; much like the Gothic itself.
‘Hauntology’ was first coined in Derrida’s 1993 address to the Whither Marxism? conference held at The University of California.  Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, the British translation of this address, was published by Routledge in 1994. Derrida’s purpose here is to contextualise the role of Marx’s corpus in the geopolitical environment of the mid 90s. He argues that in order to do this an ontological approach does not suffice and instead a hauntology should be employed in order to account for the conjuring away of the ghosts of Marx by the neo-capitalist order. Marx’s ideas have never really been realised in their entirety and yet the idea of their power haunts the political bourgeois and thus they defend themselves against the ghost of a political idea. As Marx puts it at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto (1848), “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.”
I cannot pretend to fully understand every avenue Derrida pursues in Spectres of Marx. In fact, even the basic definition of hauntology is slightly unclear to me. It is a logic of haunting that is not
merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being… It would harbour within itself, but like circumscribed or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves. It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly. (Derrida 1994, p.10)
Typically Derrida talks of hauntology promoting an incomprehensible comprehension, specifically regarding an end-of-days Messianic chain of cause and effect (eschatology), or of the more general notion of all things being directed towards a specific end result (teleology). It takes a philosopher, I think, to fully understand and then elucidate this for others and so I will leave the philosophical questions for another time and instead focus on how Derrida uses fiction to aid his definition of the spectral.  
Spectres of Marx is littered with references to Shakespeare, famously the Gotihc Bard, particularly Hamlet and Timon of Athens. I wish to focus on Derrida’s use of Hamlet and specifically on how the text plays out what Derrida calls ‘the visor effect’ through the spectral form of King Hamlet. The visor effect underpins hauntology. It is a juncture at which abstract political philosophy meets the human subject. The reactions to the ghost of Hamlet become a fictional playing-out of subjects being aware of an unfathomable ‘Thing’ watching:
This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look on our part, according to an absolute anteriority (which may be on the order of generation, of more than one generation) and asymmetry, according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion. Here anach[r]ony makes the law. To feel ourselves seen by a look which it will always be impossible to cross, that is the visor effect on the basis of which we inherit the law. (ibid, p.7)
In a sociological sense the visor effect is the mechanism of the law that makes the individual political subject feel watched by an overarching legislative authority. The Thing that watches brings the subject into a timeless space recalling Freud’s assertion that the unconscious has no time. “The Thing” can see but we cannot see it. We cannot see it but we can feel it look at us. Derrida reads the visor – part of the armour of the Ghost of Hamlet – as covering the apparitions distinguishing human features but it simultaneously allows the apparition to watch.
Now, I have to make an aside here, as Derrida’s reading is not quite accurate to how the ghost of Hamlet is perceived all the time in the text. In the scene below Hamlet asks if the apparition of his father is wearing armour. Contrary to Derrida’s reading it would seem that Hortatio has perceived the “countenance” of the apparition:
Arm’d, say you?
Arm’d, my lord.
From top to toe?
 My lord, from head to foot.
Then saw you not his face?
O, yes, my lord; he wore his beaver up.
What, look’d he frowningly?
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
  Pale or red?
 Nay, very pale.
As seen above, the text does not always play out the idea of the visor effect convincingly; however, in general, and detached from this context, the metaphor of unseen eyes looking from behind a visor remains apt to how Derrrida regards ‘The Thing’ and this idea can still provide some elucidating readings of The Gothic. I would suggest particularly so in the chase scene or in a staging of suspense in which the pursuer remains hidden.

For the sake of brevity I will post some examples below for discussion and not conclude as such. Firstly, if you forgive the misogyny, the music video to ‘Aisha’ by Death in Vegas (1999) shows a model damsel – later revealed to be an actress – being pursued by The Thing. Crucially, she is horrified, feels pursued and is trying to flee something unseen. This, to me, is the visor effect. (Embedding doesn’t seem to work so just the link i’m afraid).–2140990

Also, the mask of Tomas (0.48) in The Orphanage (2007) provides a creepy example of a more substantial being generating the effect of an inscrutable ‘Thing’ watching. I think in this case the role of the visor and the mask overlap.

Finally, I want to reiterate that someone who doesn’t feel watched is not being subject to the visor effect. This applies to Marion in Psycho (1960) in the famous scene below but just from 1.55 to 2.10 when she is being watched through the peep hole by Norman. She is crucially unaware and therefore Norman is not generating the visor effect in her.


Derrida, J 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Routledge: London.
Shakespeare, S 1998. Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.   E-text Edition:
Accessed: 13/04/09

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