CriticaLink | Lacan: The Mirror Stage | Guide to pp. 4-5, P 17-21

This development is experienced as a temporal dialectic. . .

To understand Lacan's claim that the mirror stage projects the individual into history, we might return to his statement in paragraph 8 that the mirror stage points the development of the ego in a "fictional direction". "Fictional" here can be taken in two senses. If our lives are in any sense "stories," if we experience our existence as an eventful progression through time, each of us needs to become a "character" who will play the role of the protagonist of our autobiography. Lacan argues that this character is fictional, that is, it is fabricated in the mirror stage when the infant's reflected image presents itself as means of overcoming the infant's sensations of bodily fragmentation and powerlessness. By calling the image of a whole, unified body "orthopaedic," Lacan suggests that the "I" formed in the mirror stage functions like a brace (such as the kind used to treat scoliosis) that seeks to hold the unruly forces animating the subject into a stable position.

In bringing into being the "I" who will play the protagonist in the subject's life story, forming a link between the subject's psyche and the world outside, the mirror stage lays the groundwork for the cultural formation of identity, which is why the mirror-stage model has become important to certain strands of Marxism, gender theory, theories of sexuality, and cultural studies. Louis Althusser, for example, draws heavily upon Lacan's model for his theory of the interpellation of the subject by the ideological state apparatuses. The social dimension of the formation of "identity"--a term Lacan himself rarely uses, perhaps because it implies a unity and self-identity that are not concurrent the radically provisional nature of the "I" in his model--is inaugurated in the Oedipal complex, where other subjects (the mother- and father-figures) intervene into the dynamic that forms the "I." At this point, the four-part schema Lacan calls the "inexhaustible quadrature of the ego's verifications" can be applied to the subject's psychic life.

The provisional, fictional "I" serves at once as a kind of orthopaedic brace that holds the unruly, fragmenting organic drives into a coherent whole and as a defense against the impulses arising from these drives, which never "go away," but occupy the psychic register Freud calls the id. A great deal of classical psychoanalytic theory is devoted to accounting for how the id continues to assert itself in the life of the subject. As Freud often did, Lacan turns to visual art for examples of psychic operations, suggesting here that the fantasmagorical images of bodies in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch correspond to manifestations of unconscious drives in the mental and physical symptoms of schizophrenia and hysteria.

As does Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy,, Lacan assumes a connection between artistic production and dream-states, noting that dreams frequently contain images of fortresses or enclosures that divide the landscape into interior and exterior spaces. The adventures the dreamer plays out in these spaces symbolize the dynamic, combative relationship between the ego and the id. Lacan also notes that metaphors based on the imagery of fortification are common in the speech of patients suffering from obsessional neuroses.

In a passage that has important implications for literary criticism, Lacan emphasizes that these symbols are not the products of the creative imaginations of individuals, but rather that they are manifestations of the basic mental organization of human beings in human culture--that is, in human systems of signification. Psychoanalysis, Lacan argues, can supply the theoretical "grid" of concepts with which to analyze specific instances of such symbolization as they are presented in the speech of individual patients, relating them to fundamental functions in the development and operations of the psyche. Viewed from a psychoanalytic perspective, the literary text represents a particular organization of signs in relation to fundamental structures of psychic life. The author cannot be considered an "absolute subject" who is the origin of the linguistic structures of the text, but as structure him- or herself within the dynamic of psychic drives and socio-linguistic conventions.

Within his own field of psychoanalytic practice, Lacan hopes that his theory will be used to determine where something has "gone wrong" in the process of the formation of the "I" of his patients, giving rise to mental illness. Following Freud, Lacan suggests throughout his work that mental illnesses are variations on the same psychic structures that produce "normal" mental states. Referring to the work of Freud's daughter Anna, this passage suggests that certain disorders such as hysteria, obsessional neurosis, and paranoia can be linked to particular stages within the formation of the "I". A critical juncture in this process--the point at which much can "go wrong"--is the transition out of the mirror stage, which takes place in the Oedipal complex when when the "specular I" gives way to the "social I" and the initial identification of the infant with her Ideal-I becomes inflected by cultural norms, conventions, and expectations.

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