CriticaLink | Lacan: The Mirror Stage | Guide to pp. 2-3, P 8-12

This form would have to be called the Ideal-I. . .

Lacan associates the image with Freud's ego-ideal, calling it the Ideal-I. The "usual register" refers to the position of the ego in the Freudian model of the psyche. The formation of this projected image of a self is important to the development of secondary identifications--libidinal investments in other people, things, and ideas (see Freud's "On Narcissism" for an introduction to this process of libidinal investment). The primary identification is with the image itself, and Lacan's main concern here is to show that this identification is "fictional," that the Ideal-I will never fully conform to the subject's actual experience of existence. Lacan uses a geometrical analogy to illustrate this lack of convergence: an asymptotic line runs close to a curve but never meets it. (insert illustration). Even before the subject enters consciously into social reality, even before any of the conventional ideas of "striving for goals" or "achieving" are established for the socialized individual, the "I" is set up as internally disunited, permanently incomplete.

So what is this Ideal-I like? Returning to his earlier emphasis on the helplessness of the human infant, Lacan again stresses that the mirror image, though in one sense an "accurate" representation of the infant's body, is at the same time different from the infant's impressions of her own existence. The fact that a reflection is reversed, for example, indicates that reflected images never exactly correspond to their originals. The "wholeness" of the reflected body is an important element of this lack of correspondence. The reflection represents to the infant a fixed and stable form--the German word Gestalt means form--that anticipates the relative self-control and stability the child will achieve as she grows older. In this respect, the image represents all the potentialities of the "I" it establishes in the child's psyche. But the image is utimately a different thing, separate from the child; its potential can never be completely realized. The image that crystalizes the "I" is "pregnant" with the ambivalent characteristics of the human sense of self. The last sentence of this paragraph indicates how this combination of the image's stability and unattainability shapes the lives of adult humans, largely in negative ways, resulting in limiting self-concepts, anxieties, disappointments, and unfulfilling accommodations to the circumstances of life.

Lacan observes that different mental states, such as dreams, hallucinations, projections, and the associations that emerge from the speech of the analysand in the session, all involve the presence of a mental image of the subject's own body. He suggests that the mind needs this image to organize the visible world--the subject must be able to visualize herself in relation to the objects around her.

Lacan turns to biology for support for his claims about the internalization of an image of the self, although he observes that biology would not accept the psychodynamic principles on which he is basing his argument. He offers two fairly clear examples:

  • female pigeons reach sexual maturity only in the presence of other members of their species; a female pigeon in isolation will mature if she sees her own reflection in a mirror.

  • at a particular development stage, a type of locust will make the transition from one form to another if it sees movements similiar to those made by members of its species.
Lacan links these observations from biology with aesthetics, suggesting a connection between certain animals' tendencies to respond to visual forms that resemble them (homeomorphic identification) and ideas about beauty that are shaped in part by notions of scale and symmetry derived from the dimensions of the human body.

The phenomenon of animal mimicry (physical appearances or behaviors that resemble those of other animals or elements of the environment for protection; heteromorphic identification). also offers insights into the role of visual identification in development. Lacan suggests that psychological accounts of such physical transformations are no less valid than biological explanations that draw on the theory of evolution. He refers to the work of Roger Callois, a radical sociologist who associated with George Bataille, Michel Leiris, and other theorists in an effort to reformulate approaches to analyzing society. Lacan is particularly interested here in how psychic events such as identification are connected to physical reality--the body and the physical environment the body occupies. The acquisition of a unified (though ultimately unstable) sense of selfhood is bound up with a mastery of the physical, and eventually social space that the self imagines itself to occupy.

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