CriticaLink | Lacan: The Mirror Stage | Guide to pp. 6-7, P 27-33

At the culmination of the historical effort of a society. . .

The remaining paragraphs of the essay explore what the theoretical model of the mirror stage and its implications about the nature of the psyche can contribute to an understanding of human experience in present-day society. Lacan suggests that modern life is increasingly organized along the lines of a concentration camp (a particularly striking and disturbing image in 1949, four years after the close of the Second World War): geared almost exclusively toward production, excessively rationalized, and heedless of individual concerns. In this same year, Martin Heidegger was offering a similar critique of modern industrial society in the lectures that led up to "The Question Concerning Technology". Existentialism, Lacan argues, offers a weak response to these dehumanizing conditions, and the remainder of the paragraph lists the failings of existential philosophy, culminating with an allusion to the murder of an Arab committed by the character Meursault in Albert Camus's famous existential novel The Stranger, published in 19.

Although to some degree existentialism and psychoanalysis share in a fatalistic view of what it means to be human--neither recognizes anything like a transcendent "soul"; both emphasize the mortality and materiality of human existence--Lacan accuses existentialism of promoting the naive conviction that humans can achieve a direct, conscious knowledge of their condition. For Lacan, our knowledge of our existence is always mediated through the system of imaginary psychic and social relations that structure our sense of self in the first place. Again turning to the work of Anna Freud on the ego, Lacan suggests that the operation of Verneinung--negation or denial--is fundamental to the misrecognitions that structure our experience of ourselves and of reality. I am an animal subject to death and to violent instinctual drives; I disavow this dimension of my reality in order to function as a "normal" human being, but the reality of my aggression, sexuality, and mortality does not go away. These distressing "truths" about my nature form the id, which puts a constant pressure on my consciousness and which may erupt in dreams, neuroses, and psychotic episodes.

If we imagine the "I" formed in the mirror stage as a kind of internal fortification against the forces of the id, on the one hand, and, on the other, as the defensive suit of armor in which the subject ventures into the world, we can understand what Lacan means by the "inertia" that is characteristic of this "I". Bent on maintaining its fragile integrity, the ego can easily come to experience the world as a hostile environment, and attempts to remain static in the midst of the dynamic and potentially destructive events of the daily life of the mind. The resulting emotional states and behaviors--anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions--form the basic neuroses. Incidents of psychosis occur when the fortification breaks down and the subject can no longer distinguish the internal from the external world, when the external world captates the ego. Insofar as the ego maintains itself in a dialectical, contingent relationship with the id and with the world outside, forms of neurosis and madness are hard for humans to avoid. What psychoanalysis reveals, Lacan suggests, is the madness of everyday life, the interminable psychic distress that characterizes the human mind.

Lacan repeats this thought in a manner consistent with Freud's perspective on psychoanalytic theory: the psychoanalyst's observations of the experiences of neurotic and psychotic patients afford insight into the operations of the "normal" mind. These insights, moreover, indicate that there is in fact no "normal" mind--the socially elaborated idea of "normality" is, in fact, one of the méconnaissances of the ego and, as an unattainable characteristic of the Ideal-I, serves as spur for aggresssion and neurosis. Lacan again decries the routine, deadening rationalization of modern social life.

Like anthropology, a discipline to which Lacan frequently refers (especially the work of the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss), psychoanalysis occupies the no-man's-land between physical nature and the "culture" that human beings create for themselves out of material and mental structures. Just as he earlier claims the superiority of psychoanalysis over existential philosophy, here he suggests that his field takes precedence over anthropology. Focusing as it does on the human subject and the nature of subjectivity as an amalgam of corporeality, mental imagery, and language, psychoanalysis is in the best position to understand human culture. Caught up in libidinal bonds with its own image and with other human beings, the ego's life, and the collective life of the culture in which the ego participates, is dominated by desire, which Lacan here calls "love." Here, this love refers in particular to the transference relationship between the patient and the analyst, one of the fundamental elements of psychoanalytic therapy. The figure of the knot hints at the fascination with mathematical knot theory that plays a significant role late in Lacan's career.

Returning to the idea that even the most altruistic person--the good Samaritan--is aggressively trying to assuage narcissistic disappointments, Lacan issues a challenge to psychoanalysts. Rather than viewing psychoanalysis as an altruistic "helping profession," Lacan suggests that it consists in a kind of philosophical exercise for both analyst and analysand, the goal of which is not necessarily to "feel better" but to have a better grasp of the human condition.

The essay ends on a note of apparent (and uncharacteristic) humility, but Lacan's modest statements about the limitations of psychoanalysis can be read as an aggressive challenge to those analysts whom Lacan feels are degrading the Freudian tradition through simplifications of the theory and naive, feel-good approaches to the practice. He further develops these criticisms almost a decade later in a report on "The Direction of the Treatment and Principles of its Power" (Ecrits 226). Because it places me in a situation that activates the desires and aggressions generated by the split in my ego, therapy can guide me toward a confrontation with the basic truth of my existence: in analysis, I confront my fundamental lack of being, what Lacan elsewhere calls the manque-à-être (the want-to-be), the insatiable desire that is spurred, ultimately, by the fact of death. (There are loud echoes of Heidegger's analysis of Being in this formulation.) Lacan frequently compares psychoanalysis to a mystery religion in which, at a certain point in the ritual, a secret truth is revealed. The psychoanalytic session can bring me to the point where I realize that to be human is to be subject to a desire that cannot be fulfilled. What is striking about Lacan's vision of analysis is that he does not suggest that I accommodate myself to this disappointment, that I "make do" with the norms imposed by society and culture, but rather that I find a way to be less disabled by the dialectic of desire that structures my being.

It is difficult to sum up the aims of Lacanian psychoanalysis, but we might say that the patient "comes to terms with desire." The exercise of performing a close reading of the ambiguities of the words in this expression, and of assessing its inadequacy, will be a better introduction to Lacanian theory than any summation I might offer here.

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