One thing I will do a lot on this blog is to do close readings of essays or book sections. I do not anticipate ANY of this readings will prove authoritative, or even good. One thing that I am continually reminded of is that this academic business is very, very hard work, and so a lot of what I post here I hope I a sort of first draft of a thought. A major reason I have decided to blog is because of the “iceberg theorem” that I think governs academic writing. As in the case of the iceberg, whose heft is generally hidden under the sea, so too do good essays have beneath them months and months of difficult, hard work found in close reading and developing ideas. These ideas may not explicitly show up in the essay and yet do so much work for the writer that they seem to me to be invaluable.
So to contextualize this reading a little bit: I have turned to this essay of Lacan’s in the process of developing further an essay I wrote on Vladimir Putin in the spring semester last year. I need to understand better the functions of the Ideal/Ego and Ego/Ideal so I can more competently reflect on the relationship between Time magazine’s Person of the Year feature and the national consciousness.
Lacan begins by examining the ego, and states outright that “this experience sets us at odds with any philosophy directly stemming from the cogito.” So, “I think, therefore I am” is to be problematized. Mimesis is here privileged as the primary mover in the development of subjectivity. Lacan’s exemplary child recognizes his own image owing to the ability to manipulate it in the mirror, where he “playfully experiences the relationship between the movements made in the image and the reflected environment” (75).
Lacan is after insights about an “ontological structure” of the human world. This is a question of Being, not a question of knowledge. The mirror stage kickstarts an imaginary identification. The dependent infant, seeing a specular image is “manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordrial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as a subject” (76). This is the Ideal-Ego, which remains fictional and “will only asymptotically approach the subject’s becoming”. I understand this image to be the ideal to which the subject will always move itself to become a fully formed subject. It is purely an ideal—a necessary fiction. We might think of this image as an always receding horizon—the subject seeks constantly to reach this horizon, to fill out this empty profile, yet is prohibited from doing so.
More fascinating still are the passages on 78, where Lacan speaks of the internal pressure of the mirror stage and how the subject is pushed from insufficiency to anticipation. If all the subject experienced was insufficiency, subjectivity’s drive towards completion might stop out of despair. If all the subject experienced was a pleasurable anticipation, movement would also stop—the subject would wish to sustain in that very moment. Lacan calls the resulting development “orthopedic”. Doing some etymological work, the result is “the straight rearing of children” as the definition of the two roots that play into orthopedics. Here we can read the “straight” part to mean properly or orderly—the fragmented body of the child is made whole/orderly by the fictive projection of a complete image. Thus the fictive whole is adopted as a goal towards which a subject is always moving and straining, and believing in the achievement of this totality enables subjectivity.
All this business about the fragmented body I find fascinating, in light of all I have read lately about partial objects, fractured drives, and the multiple different ways of centering pleasure around various body parts. And of course here Lacan seems clearly to be making the “not-all of being” argument that Joan Copjec so aggressively makes in Imagine There’s No Woman.
So when does “the specular I turn into the social I? It is when the mirror stages ends, and the previously imagined image of I becomes “linked to socially elaborated situations” (79). Lacan says this is the point where “the whole of human knowledge
The ego is about misrecoginition. The ego cannot be about recognition, because if this is the case, Lacan argues, the result of the consciousness of the Other is “Hegelian murder”—the inevitable conquest involved in the Master-Slave dialectic. Self-realization obtained only in suicide—the annihilation of the self is taken as the only evidence that the self could ever have existed in the first place. For Lacan, the fictive existence of the self as a whole in the first place better explains what is going on, and provides a safer theory of subjectivity. For the existentialist self is one given to inevitable conflict owing to the inevitable failing of identification. But the psychoanalytic self possesses narcissism as a limit to the faith in the self existing. All subjectivity is misrecognition, not non-recognition.