CriticaLink | Lacan: The Mirror Stage | Guide to pp. 5-6, P 22-26

This moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end. . .

At the end of the mirror stage--again, it's important to understand that the mirror stage "ends" only in its status as a phase of psychic development, but continues as a structural element of psychic life--the initial relationship between the infant and her Ideal-I becomes the foundation for the child's social relationships and for the child's self-image as a social being. To illustrate the dialectical nature of this relationship, Lacan turns to a type of behavior in young children observed by the child psychologist Charlotte Büaut;hler: young children may cry in pain when they see another child injure himself; a child who hits another child may complain of having been hit. Lacan gives a fuller description of this transitivism, using these examples, in "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis" (Ecrits 19). While this form of transitivism does not persist in older children, the child's "I," even when it is established as a separate entity distinct from others, will continue to be dependent upon others for its stability and coherence. In addition to transitivism, Lacan views jealousy in pre-verbal infants--early instances of sibling rivalry, for example--as another indication of how the child's experience of selfhood is bound up with the presence of others. In "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis," he quotes a passage from Augustine's Confessions to support this point (Ecrits 20).

For Lacan, we are "who we are" only in relation to other people. Our aims and desires are shaped by the desires of others, in interpersonal terms and in terms of social expectations and prohibitions. Our knowledge of the world comes to us by way of other people; the language we learn to speak prexists us, and to a great degree our thoughts conform to preestablished concepts and linguistic structures. As we assimilate to these social conventions, the pressures of our instinctual drives--sexuality, for example--appear to us as threats, as "dangers." Those of us who were raised in the Christian tradition might recall anxiety about "sin," which can serve as an example of a socially elaborated defense against instinctual impulses that are viewed as harmful to the integrity of the self (the "soul.") The prohibition of incest in the Oedipal complex--accompanied by the threat of castration for the male child-- is the classical example in Freudian psychoanalysis of the intervention of cultural norms into the child's sexual impulses.

Freud's theory of primary narcissism underlies much of Lacan's thinking here. The infant develops two strong libidinal attachments: to his mother (or other primary caregiver) and to his own ego. What is the connection between sexual libido (what Freud in "On Narcissism" calls object libido, which is directed outward toward persons and things, and the libido that is invested in the ego (what Freud calls ego-libido? The ego-libido is a kind of double-edged sword. Part of the ego's investment in its image is positive; minimally, we need to have some investment in ourselves to nourish our bodies and preserve them from harm. The Ideal-I, because it never fully corresponds to the entity the subject experiences as "herself." also spurs disappointment, frustration, and anger, In Lacan's terms, we never "measure up" to our Ideal-I, and this failure emerges in our psycho-social lives in the form of insecurity, envy, and hostility. The dissatisfaction that arises from the split in our egos colors all of our social behaviors. Lacan alludes to the Christian parable of the good Samaritan to suggest that even our greatest acts of self-sacrifice are driven in part by the need to shore up our ideal image of ourselves--the gratifying vision of ourselves, for example, as saintly, self-sacrificing people.

The otherness of the image the subject assumes in the mirror stage creates a negative dimension in the subject's existence. I am never, in Lacan's model, fully "myself" because the relationship within which my ego, my "I", comes into being is a relationship with an image that is not me, that is an unattainable ideal. Lacan notes the similarity between this negativity and the emphasis on alienation and essential meaninglessness of existence in the philosophical movement of existentialism, developed by Jean-Paul Sartre in response, in part, to the phenomenological work of Martin Heidegger. Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, is Sartre's major exposition of existentialism; its title echoes Heidegger's 1927 work Being and Time..

Lacan is critical of existentialism, however, and his criticism is related to his attacks on American-style ego psychology. Although existentialists recognize the meaninglessness of existence and the human being's responsibility to make meaning out of it, this philosophy formulates this negative outlook in terms of a consciousness that is self-present and self-aware. Lacan's model of consciousness is based on the principle that the self is never self-aware, that what is experiences as "itself" is a misrecognition, a méconnaissance. An existential psychoanalysis did develop out of existentialism, focusing on helping the individual come to terms with the ethical imperatives of his or her existence.

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