Saturday, December 20, 2008

Essay on the Mirror Stage- A Reading

A Disclaimer:

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 mediated by the others desire”. The self image of “I” becomes threatened. The self defines the self against the other to ensure that the self remains independent—throughout the essay Lacan speaks of “armor” and “defenses”, indicating that the projection of the ego into the social is an identity risking enterprise, one that helps to ensure that the sense of the self is strengthened, even as the desire for the desire of the Other is strengthened.

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.


  1. Some late night rambling: I get a little lost in the last paragraph. I would say that you underestimate the sacrifice Lacan calls entry into the symbolic. Yes, the enfans "jubilantly assumes" his image in the mirror, but this jubilation is short lived. The mirror stage must be understood as a fantasy (a special fantasy) that is analogous in structure to all fantasies: it is a postulation of wholeness. It is important to remember that it is not the assumption of the image that is important, but its ensuing function as y-axis in the asymptotic approach of the ego's becoming.

    Retroactive temporality applies here as well: the mirror stage is not the point at which one becomes something, but rather the point at which one (mis)recognizes that it is possible to be anything at all. One is launched into a trajectory where one is always becoming something, and it is not the imago in the mirror, but the fantasy structured in that moment which imagines being.

    Given this, we should read against Lacan's playfulness in this essay: we do not have a comedy on our hands, but a tragedy. Like all tragedies, this one is also unsafe, and everyone dies at the end. If the body is "made whole" in the mirror stage by projecting an ego, then it is to be torn asunder upon entry into the symbolic. The body-in-fragments becomes a whole (in a retroactively constructed fantasy which has no specific content, but only a structural place in the history of the subject), but the whole is consequently written over with signifiers, and is reproduced as a machine. My hands, my ear, my heart, my voice: the only thing these parts have in common is that they belong to me. I give you my hand, I lend you my ear, I promise my heart, I throw my voice. Organs fly away from me as fast as I can name them. As much as these parts belong to me they belong to the Other (the Other as language, the symbolic order). As much as they circulate in the Other-as-language they are not mine, but things in what Heidegger would call a world. The hand is only a hand in a world, and thus a part of a world as much as it is a part of my self. My self is of course also a part in a world (the world worlds me)--it is only thus that I can refer to "my self" (the phrase is redundant if taken literally).

    This is the tragedy of the symbolic: what we lose is precisely our self. The letter kills (or at least it maims beyond recognition). Of course this self was never ours in the first place, since it only (failed to exist) existed as a retroactively posited fantasy projection. The "enjoyment" one sacrifices upon entry into the symbolic is profoundly linked with the jubilant moment the little man experiences in front of the mirror.

  2. P.S.: enabling anonymous comments would make things easier.

  3. Who needs anonymity?

    Also, don't worry so much about self-justifications, Sounding. Just grab your dick and jump in.