Lacan’s first important innovation in the field of psychoanalysis took place in 1936, when he was 35 years of age, practising as a psychiatrist and still in psychoanalytic training. At the fourteenth congress of the International Psycho-Analytical Association, held at Marienbad, Lacan presented a paper entitled ‘Le stade du miroir’, later translated into English as ‘The Mirror Stage’. ‘The Mirror Stage’ remains one of the most frequently anthologized and referenced of Lacan’s texts. It was translated as early as 1968 in the Marxist journal New Left Review and, as we will see, played a crucial role in the dissemination of Lacanian ideas in film and cultural studies. There is also something of a mythology that has grown around this paper that has been influential in constructing an image of Lacan as an outcast – a heroic figure battling for the truth against a conservative and reactionary establishment.
Ten minutes after starting his presentation on the mirror stage Lacan was interrupted and prevented from continuing by the congress president, Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer and one of his most devoted disciples. Lacan left the congress the following morning and travelled to Berlin where he visited Goebbels’ monumental fascist spectacle of the eleventh Olympiad at the newly built Olympic Stadium. In the proceedings of the congress there was only the briefest mention of Lacan’s presentation and his paper was not included in the subsequent conference publication. This initial encounter, therefore, can be seen to set the tone for Lacan’s relationship with the psychoanalytic establishment for the rest of his career. He felt himself to have been snubbed and rejected by the very people he wanted to impress and he responded in turn by rejecting them. There is certainly some truth in this, and the International Psycho-Analytical Association remains to this day a deeply conservative or even, in the eyes of some, reactionary institution. But at the same time we should note that at the congress every speaker was scheduled to give a ten-minute presentation and by stopping Lacan at the end of his time limit Jones was simply performing his function as chairperson. Furthermore, Lacan did not submit the paper for publication in the conference proceedings, so its absence from the eventual volume cannot be seen as a deliberate exclusion by the IPA. There is no known transcript of the 1936 paper and the version included in Écrits dates from 1949, when Lacan once more presented it to the sixteenth international congress of the IPA in Zürich. This time Lacan was not stopped from speaking and his presentation was published with the conference proceedings in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Thirteen years had elapsed, therefore, between the first formulation of Lacan’s idea and the paper that we now read – 13 years in which Lacan had continued to develop and modify his ideas. As Dany Nobus puts it:
the mirror stage has always been viewed by Lacan as a solid piece of theorizing, a paradigm retaining its value to explain human self-consciousness, aggressivity, rivalry, narcissism, jealousy and fascination with images in general. In a sense, this does not come as a surprise when it is appreciated that the 1949 Mirror Stage article was not something Lacan had concocted at a moment’s notice, but a pearl which he had carefully cultured for some thirteen odd years.
Context and Influences
As with all of Lacan’s papers, there is a multiplicity of allusions and references in ‘The Mirror Stage’, which can often confuse a reader who is unfamiliar with its context. The paper is concerned with the formation of the ego through the identification with an image of the self. According to Freud’s second model of the mind – what is usually
referred to as the ‘topographical’ model (see Thurschwell 2000
: Ch. 5
) – the ego represents the organized part of the psyche in contrast to the unorganized elements of the unconscious (the id). As Freud writes, the ‘ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world. … The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions’ (Freud 1984a
: 363–4). In this sense, the ego is often associated with consciousness, but this is a mistake. The ego is related to consciousness, but it is also in constant tension with the demands of the unconscious and the imperatives of the superego. The function of the ego, therefore, is defensive insofar as it mediates between the unconscious (the id) and the demands of external reality (the superego). Even at this early stage of his career Lacan was concerned to distinguish the ego from the subject and to elaborate a conception of subjectivity as divided or ‘alienated’. Before explaining the detail of his argument, it is important to understand that Lacan drew on a wide range of influences from philosophy and experimental psychology in order to formulate his ideas in this paper. So, I will first briefly highlight four strands of thinking in ‘The Mirror Stage’: the philosophical tradition of phenomenology; the work of the psychologist Henri Wallon (1879–1962) on mirroring; the work of the ethologist Roger Caillois (1913–78) on mimicry; and the work of philosopher Alexandre Kojève (1902–68) on recognition and desire.
In what we can see as the first phase of Lacan’s career – from the completion of his doctoral thesis in 1932 to ‘The Rome Discourse’ in 1953 (see Chapter 2
) – he was philosophically speaking a phenomen-ologist. Phenomenology derives from the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and is concerned with the nature of ‘pure phenomena’, that is to say, with the idea that objects do not exist independently as things in the world separate from our perception of them but are intimately linked to human consciousness. According to phenomenologists, human consciousness is not the passive recognition of material phenomena that are simply there, ‘given’, but a process of actively constituting or ‘intending’ those phenomena. Husserl argued that we cannot be certain of anything
beyond our immediate experience and therefore have to ignore, or ‘put in brackets’, everything outside our perception or consciousness. He called this process ‘phenomenological reduction’ in the sense that we reduce the external world to consciousness alone. In short, the process of thinking about an object and the object itself are mutually dependent. As Terry Eagleton (1983)
notes, this is all very abstract and unreal, but the idea behind phenomenology was, paradoxically, to get away from abstract philosophical speculation and get back to the analysis of things themselves in real concrete situations.
Husserl’s ideas were further developed by his most famous pupil Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Heidegger argued that all understanding is historically situated. As human beings we always perceive the world from a specific situation and our most fundamental desire is to transcend or surpass that situation. This is what Heidegger called the ‘project’: as a subject one is physically situated in time and space but one then ‘projects’ oneself into the future. Human subjectivity or what we call existence involves this constant process of projecting oneself out on to the world and into the future. For Heidegger, therefore, human consciousness is not an inner world of thoughts and images but a constant process of projecting outside, or what he called ‘ex-sistence’. These ideas were carried over to France by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), after he attended Heidegger’s lectures in 1932. In an early work entitled Transcendence of the Ego (1934) Sartre distinguished between self-consciousness and the ego. As we saw above, Freud defined the ego as the reasoning faculty of the mind, mediating between unconscious passions and external reality. By extending Heidegger’s notion of the project Sartre suggested that self-consciousness was essentially ‘nothing’, while the ego was an object in the world perceived by the subject. In the 1930s and 1940s Lacan was strongly influenced by these ideas. Sartre’s distinction between subject and ego paved the way for Lacan’s own formulation of the relationship between subject and ego in the mirror stage, while the notions of ‘ex-sistence’ and ‘nothingness’ recur throughout his work. What is crucial for understanding Lacan, however, and especially where he adopts ideas from philosophy, anthropology and linguistics, is that he always transforms concepts into a psychoanalytic register. Thus, he transferred phenomenological notions of ex-sistence and nothingness from the realm of consciousness to the unconscious. As Jacques-Alain Miller writes:
It was essential to him that the unconscious not be taken as an interiority or container in which some drives are found over on the one side and a few identifications over on the other. … He took the unconscious not as a container, but rather as something ex-sistent – outside itself – that is connected to a subject who is a lack of being.
We will see what Miller means by ‘lack of being’ below.
Experimental Psychology: The Self as Mirror Image
Between the first presentation of ‘The Mirror Stage’ at Marienbad and its publication in 1949, Lacan was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness and specifically self-consciousness. What was it, in other words, that enabled an individual to become aware of him/herself as an autonomous thinking, feeling being in the first place and to maintain this level of self-consciousness? Traditionally psychology had argued that self-awareness arises from the infant’s gradual and increasing awareness of its own physical body. The psychologist Henri Wallon argued that this was a rather circular argument in the sense that it presupposed that the infant had a level of individual awareness in the first place in order for it then to become aware of its own body. Consequently, he suggested that the infant must not only gain awareness of its own body and bodily functions but to simultaneously develop an awareness of its environment and the external world in order to differentiate itself from that external environment. In other words, for a person to identify themselves as an autonomous coherent self they must first distinguish themselves from others and from their social environment. A key process in this emergent sense of self, argued Wallon, was the ability of the infant to recognize and simultaneously distinguish itself from its own mirror reflection. The reflected image presents a dilemma for the infant because it is at once intimately connected to its own sense of self and at the same time external to it. Wallon suggested that between the ages of three months and one year the infant gradually progresses from an initial indifference to the mirror image to an acceptance and mastery over this image as separate from itself. What Lacan took from experimental psychology therefore was the importance of the role of mirroring in the construction of self and of self-consciousness. What psychology could not account for, however, was why the image held this particular fascination and power for the subject, and for this Lacan turned to a rather different discipline, ethology, the study of animal behaviour.
It is well known that many small animals and insects can change their colour to match that of their immediate environment or have developed particular markings and characteristics to make them indistinguishable from their environment. The usual understanding of this is that it offers protection for the animals concerned, hiding them from potential predators. What research tended to show, however, was that insects that assume the appearance of their environment were just as likely to be eaten as those that did not. So how could this phenomenon be explained? In his paper ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ Roger Caillois suggested that, contrary to the usual explanation, insects that assume the appearance of their environment are in fact assimilating themselves to that environment. In other words they are captivated by the very space that surrounds them and seek to lose themselves within that space, to break down the distinction between organism and environment. From Caillois’ work then Lacan took the idea of the fascination and capturing properties of the image and above all how we shape ourselves according to that image. Lacan’s innovation in ‘The Mirror Stage’ was to combine the phenomenological distinction between subject and ego with a psychological understanding of the role of images and the constructed nature of the self through the philosophical category of the dialectic.
The Dialectic of Recognition and Desire
Between 1933 and 1939 the philosopher Alexandre Kojève conducted a weekly seminar on the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831). Kojève’s influential seminar was attended by almost all the major figures of France’s immediate post-war intellectual life – Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Bataille to name just a few – including Lacan himself. Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel was to have a profound influence on this whole generation of thinkers and dominated French philosophy until the mid-1960s, when Hegelianism was finally displaced by Structuralism and Post-structuralism. Hegel elaborated a complex philosophical system based on a form of thinking known as dialectics.
Dialectics are a mode of philosophical thought that stresses the inter-connectedness of phenomena and the unity of opposites. This is often represented schematically as ‘thesis – anti-thesis – synthesis’, where each idea generates its opposite and the unity of two produces a new level of understanding or analysis. For example, the idea of the individual subject – the ‘self’ (thesis) – only makes sense in relation to another subject – an ‘other’ (anti-thesis). Once we begin to understand that the self is intricately connected to the other and cannot exist without the other we have a new concept, a collective ‘we’ subject (synthesis). This moment of synthesis then becomes a new thesis generating its own anti-thesis and so on. Dialectical thought, therefore, foregrounds the contradictory nature of all things, as all phenomena can be said to contain their opposite; their own negation. Out of this relationship or unity of opposites something new will emerge in an endless process of transformation.
Kojève was particularly interested in Hegel’s account of the emergence of self-consciousness as an account of the transition from nature to culture, or to put it another way, as the transition from animal existence to human existence. According to Hegel, self-hood emerges through a process of developing self-consciousness through the activity of self-reflection. For the human subject to emerge it must not simply be conscious of its own distinctiveness but must be recognized as a human subject by another. Hegel sketched out this process as the dialectic of ‘Lordship and Bondage’, more commonly known as the ‘Master/Slave’ dialectic. In this account two subjects – a ‘Master’ and a ‘Slave’ – are apparently locked in a reciprocal relationship of recognition. In order for the Master to be a subject he must be recognized by the Slave as such; in turn, the Slave knows he is a Slave because he is recognized by the Master as one. The Master is thus free to pursue his life in the firm knowledge that his identity is affirmed by the recognition of the Slave. The paradox of the dialectic, however, is that a positive always turns into a negative. Because the Master is dependent upon the Slave for the recognition of his identity he can never be truly ‘free’, whereas the Slave is not dependent on the Master in the same way because he has another source of self-affirmation, his work. If the Slave’s identity is affirmed through his work as a Slave, it is not the Master who is free but the Slave.
Kojève read this dialectic as essentially a struggle of desire and recognition. The Master and the Slave are locked in a mutual struggle for recognition: neither can exist without the recognition of the other, but at the same time the other also requires his/her own recognition. It is then for Kojève a struggle to the death, but the death of one will also be the death of the other. The Master and the Slave are locked within a struggle whereby one cannot do without the other but at the same time each is the other’s worst enemy. It is this dialectic, according to Lacan, that permeates the imaginary. Moreover, this dialectic introduces into the psychological account of mirroring outlined above the element of aggressivity, that is to say, it posits the relationship between self and other as fundamentally conflictual. It was Hegel’s great insight, contends Lacan, to reveal how ‘each human being is in the being of the other’ (Lacan 1988b : 72). We are caught in a reciprocal and irreducible dialectic of alienation. There are, however, two moments of alienation for Lacan, first, through the mirror phase and the formation of the ego, and, second, through language and the constitution of the subject. We will look at the first moment of alienation below and return to the second in the following chapter.
The Mirror Stage
The mirror phase occurs roughly between the ages of six and 18 months and corresponds to Freud’s stage of primary narcissism. That is the stage of human development when the subject is in love with the image of themselves and their own bodies and which precedes the love of others (see Thurschwell 2000
: Ch. 5
). Between the ages of six and 18 months the infant begins to recognize his/her image in the mirror (this does not mean a literal mirror but rather any reflective surface, for example the mother’s face) and this is usually accompanied by pleasure. The child is fascinated with its image and tries to control and play with it. Although the child initially confuses its image with reality, he/she soon recognizes that the image has its own properties, finally accepting that the image is their own image – a reflection of themselves.
During the mirror stage, then, the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror, that his/her body has a total form. The infant can also govern the movements of this image through the movements of its own body and thus experiences pleasure. This sense of completeness and mastery, however, is in contrast to the child’s experience of its own body, over which it does not yet have f...