Lacan's first important innovation in the field of psychoanalysis took place in 1936, when he was 35 years of age, practising as a psychiatrist and still in psychoanalytic training. At the fourteenth congress of the International Psycho-Analytical Association, held at Marienbad, Lacan presented a paper entitled 'Le stade du miroir', later translated into English as 'The Mirror Stage'. 'The Mirror Stage' remains one of the most frequently anthologized and referenced of Lacan's texts. It was translated as early as 1968 in the Marxist journal New Left Review and, as we will see, played a crucial role in the dissemination of Lacanian ideas in film and cultural studies. There is also something of a mythology that has grown around this paper that has been influential in constructing an image of Lacan as an outcast - a heroic figure battling for the truth against a conservative and reactionary establishment.
Ten minutes after starting his presentation on the mirror stage Lacan was interrupted and prevented from continuing by the congress president, Ernest Jones, Freud's biographer and one of his most devoted disciples. Lacan left the congress the following morning and travelled to Berlin where he visited Goebbels' monumental fascist spectacle of the eleventh Olympiad at the newly built Olympic Stadium. In the proceedings of the congress there was only the briefest mention of Lacan's presentation and his paper was not included in the subsequent conference publication. This initial encounter, therefore, can be seen to set the tone for Lacan's relationship with the psychoanalytic establishment for the rest of his career. He felt himself to have been snubbed and rejected by the very people he wanted to impress and he responded in turn by rejecting them. There is certainly some truth in this, and the International Psycho-Analytical Association remains to this day a deeply conservative or even, in the eyes of some, reactionary institution. But at the same time we should note that at the congress every speaker was scheduled to give a ten-minute presentation and by stopping Lacan at the end of his time limit Jones was simply performing his function as chairperson. Furthermore, Lacan did not submit the paper for publication in the conference proceedings, so its absence from the eventual volume cannot be seen as a deliberate exclusion by the IPA. There is no known transcript of the 1936 paper and the version included in Écrits dates from 1949, when Lacan once more presented it to the sixteenth international congress of the IPA in Zürich. This time Lacan was not stopped from speaking and his presentation was published with the conference proceedings in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Thirteen years had elapsed, therefore, between the first formulation of Lacan's idea and the paper that we now read - 13 years in which Lacan had continued to develop and modify his ideas.
The mirror stage has always been viewed by Lacan as a solid piece of theorizing, a paradigm retaining its value to explain human self-consciousness, aggressivity, rivalry, narcissism, jealousy and fascination with images in general. In a sense, this does not come as a surprise when it is appreciated that the 1949 Mirror Stage article was not something Lacan had concocted at a moment's notice, but a pearl which he had carefully cultured for some thirteen odd years.
Context and Influences
As with all of Lacan's papers, there is a multiplicity of allusions and references in 'The Mirror Stage', which can often confuse a reader who is unfamiliar with its context. The paper is concerned with the formation of the ego through the identification with an image of the self. According to Freud's second model of the mind - what is usually referred to as the 'topographical' model (see Thurschwell 2000: ch. 5) - the ego represents the organized part of the psyche in contrast to the unorganized elements of the unconscious (the id). As Freud writes, the 'ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world…. The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions' (Freud 1984a : 363-4). In this sense, the ego is often associated with consciousness, but this is a mistake. The ego is related to consciousness, but it is also in constant tension with the demands of the unconscious and the imperatives of the superego. The function of the ego, therefore, is defensive insofar as it mediates between the unconscious (the id) and the demands of external reality (the superego). Even at this early stage of his career Lacan was concerned to distinguish the ego from the subject and to elaborate a conception of subjectivity as divided or 'alienated'. Before explaining the detail of his argument, it is important to understand that Lacan drew on a wide range of influences from philosophy and experimental psychology in order to formulate his ideas in this paper. So, I will first briefly highlight four strands of thinking in 'The Mirror Stage': the philosophical tradition of phenomenology; the work of the psychologist Henri Wallon (1879-1962) on mirroring; the work of the ethologist Roger Caillois (1913-78) on mimicry; and the work of philosopher Alexandre Kojève (1902-68) on recognition and desire.
In what we can see as the first phase of Lacan's career - from the completion of his doctoral thesis in 1932 to 'The Rome Discourse' in 1953 (see Chapter 2) - he was philosophically speaking a phenomenologist. Phenomenology derives from the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and is concerned with the nature of 'pure phenomena', that is to say, with the idea that objects do not exist independently as things in the world separate from our perception of them but are intimately linked to human consciousness. According to phenomenologists, human consciousness is not the passive recognition of material phenomena that are simply there, 'given', but a process of actively constituting or 'intending' those phenomena. Husserl argued that we cannot be certain of anything beyond our immediate experience and therefore have to ignore, or 'put in brackets', everything outside our perception or consciousness. He called this process 'phenomenological reduction' in the sense that we reduce the external world to consciousness alone. In short, the process of thinking about an object and the object itself are mutually dependent. As Terry Eagleton (1983) notes, this is all very abstract and unreal, but the idea behind phenomenology was, paradoxically, to get away from abstract philosophical speculation and get back to the analysis of things themselves in real concrete situations.
Husserl's ideas were further developed by his most famous pupil Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger argued that all understanding is historically situated. As human beings we always perceive the world from a specific situation and our most fundamental desire is to transcend or surpass that situation. This is what Heidegger called the 'project': as a subject one is physically situated in time and space but one then 'projects' oneself into the future. Human subjectivity or what we call existence involves this constant process of projecting oneself out on to the world and into the future. For Heidegger, therefore, human consciousness is not an inner world of thoughts and images but a constant process of projecting outside, or what he called 'ex-sistence'. These ideas were carried over to France by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), after he attended Heidegger's lectures in 1932. In an early work entitled Transcendence of the Ego (1934) Sartre distinguished between self-consciousness and the ego. As we saw above, Freud defined the ego as the reasoning faculty of the mind, mediating between unconscious passions and external reality. By extending Heidegger's notion of the project Sartre suggested that self-consciousness was essentially 'nothing', while the ego was an object in the world perceived by the subject. In the 1930s and 1940s Lacan was strongly influenced by these ideas. Sartre's distinction between subject and ego paved the way for Lacan's own formulation of the relationship between subject and ego in the mirror stage, while the notions of 'ex-sistence' and 'nothingness' recur throughout his work. What is crucial for understanding Lacan, however, and especially where he adopts ideas from philosophy, anthropology and linguistics, is that he always transforms concepts into a psychoanalytic register. Thus, he transferred phenomenological notions of ex-sistence and nothingness from the realm of consciousness to the unconscious. As Jacques-Alain Miller writes:
It was essential to him that the unconscious not be taken as an interiority or container in which some drives are found over on the one side and a few identifications over on the other…. He took the unconscious not as a container, but rather as something ex-sistent - outside itself - that is connected to a subject who is a lack of being. (1996:11)
We will see what Miller means by 'lack of being' below.
The Self as Mirror Image
Between the first presentation of 'The Mirror Stage' at Marienbad and its publication in 1949, Lacan was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness and specifically self-consciousness. What was it, in other words, that enabled an individual to become aware of him/herself as an autonomous thinking, feeling being in the first place and to maintain this level of self-consciousness? Traditionally psychology had argued that self-awareness arises from the infant's gradual and increasing awareness of its own physical body. The psychologist Henri Wallon argued that this was a rather circular argument in the sense that it presupposed that the infant had a level of individual awareness in the first place in order for it then to become aware of its own body. Consequently, he suggested that the infant must not only gain awareness of its own body and bodily functions but to simultaneously develop an awareness of its environment and the external world in order to differentiate itself from that external environment. In other words, for a person to identify themselves as an autonomous coherent self they must first distinguish themselves from others and from their social environment. A key process in this emergent sense of self, argued Wallon, was the ability of the infant to recognize and simultaneously distinguish itself from its own mirror reflection. The reflected image presents a dilemma for the infant because it is at once intimately connected to its own sense of self and at the same time external to it. Wallon suggested that between the ages of three months and one year the infant gradually progresses from an initial indifference to the mirror image to an acceptance and mastery over this image as separate from itself. What Lacan took from experimental psychology therefore was the importance of the role of mirroring in the construction of self and of self-consciousness. What psychology could not account for, however, was why the image held this particular fascination and power for the subject, and for this Lacan turned to a rather different discipline, ethology, the study of animal behaviour.
It is well known that many small animals and insects can change their colour to match that of their immediate environment or have developed particular markings and characteristics to make them indistinguishable from their environment. The usual understanding of this is that it offers protection for the animals concerned, hiding them from potential predators. What research tended to show, however, was that insects that assume the appearance of their environment were just as likely to be eaten as those that did not. So how could this phenomenon be explained? In his paper 'Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia' Roger Caillois suggested that, contrary to the usual explanation, insects that assume the appearance of their environment are in fact assimilating themselves to that environment. In other words they are captivated by the very space that surrounds them and seek to lose themselves within that space, to break down the distinction between organism and environment. From Caillois' work then Lacan took the idea of the fascination and capturing properties of the image and above all how we shape ourselves according to that image. Lacan's innovation in 'The Mirror Stage' was to combine the phenomenological distinction between subject and ego with a psychological understanding of the role of images and the constructed nature of the self through the philosophical category of the dialectic.
The Dialectic of Recognition and Desire
Between 1933 and 1939 the philosopher Alexandre Kojève conducted a weekly seminar on the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Kojève's influential seminar was attended by almost all the major figures of France's immediate post-war intellectual life - Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Bataille to name just a few - including Lacan himself. Kojève's interpretation of Hegel was to have a profound influence on this whole generation of thinkers and dominated French philosophy until the mid-1960s, when Hegelianism was finally displaced by Structuralism and Post-structuralism. Hegel elaborated a complex philosophical system based on a form of thinking known as dialectics.
Dialectics are a mode of philosophical thought that stresses the interconnectedness of phenomena and the unity of opposites. This is often represented schematically as 'thesis - anti-thesis - synthesis', where each idea generates its opposite and the unity of two produces a new level of understanding or analysis. For example, the idea of the individual subject - the 'self' (thesis) - only makes sense in relation to another subject - an 'other' (anti-thesis). Once we begin to understand that the self is intricately connected to the other and cannot exist without the other we have a new concept, a collective 'we' subject (synthesis). This moment of synthesis then becomes a new thesis generating its own anti-thesis and so on. Dialectical thought, therefore, foregrounds the contradictory nature of all things, as all phenomena can be said to contain their opposite; their own negation. Out of this relationship or unity of opposites something new will emerge in an endless process of transformation.
Kojève was particularly interested in Hegel's account of the emergence of self-consciousness as an account of the transition from nature to culture, or to put it another way, as the transition from animal existence to human existence. According to Hegel, self-hood emerges through a process of developing self-consciousness through the activity of self-reflection. For the human subject to emerge it must not simply be conscious of its own distinctiveness but must be recognized as a human subject by another. Hegel sketched out this process as the dialectic of 'Lordship and Bondage', more commonly known as the 'Master/Slave' dialectic. In this account two subjects - a 'Master' and a 'Slave' - are apparently locked in a reciprocal relationship of recognition. In order for the Master to be a subject he must be recognized by the Slave as such; in turn, the Slave knows he is a Slave because he is recognized by the Master as one. The Master is thus free to pursue his life in the firm knowledge that his identity is affirmed by the recognition of the Slave. The paradox of the dialectic, however, is that a positive always turns into a negative. Because the Master is dependent upon the Slave for the recognition of his identity he can never be truly 'free', whereas the Slave is not dependent on the Master in the same way because he has another source of self-affirmation, his work. If the Slave's identity is affirmed through his work as a Slave, it is not the Master who is free but the Slave.
Kojève read this dialectic as essentially a struggle of desire and recognition. The Master and the Slave are locked in a mutual struggle for recognition: neither can exist without the recognition of the other, but at the same time the other also requires his/her own recognition. It is then for Kojève a struggle to the death, but the death of one will also be the death of the other. The Master and the Slave are locked within a struggle whereby one cannot do without the other but at the same time each is the other's worst enemy. It is this dialectic, according to Lacan, that permeates the imaginary. Moreover, this dialectic introduces into the psychological account of mirroring outlined above the element of aggressivity, that is to say, it posits the relationship between self and other as fundamentally conflictual. It was Hegel's great insight, contends Lacan, to reveal how 'each human being is in the being of the other' (Lacan 1988b : 72). We are caught in a reciprocal and irreducible dialectic of alienation. There are, however, two moments of alienation for Lacan, first, through the mirror phase and the formation of the ego, and, second, through language and the constitution of the subject. We will look at the first moment of alienation below and return to the second in the following chapter.
The Mirror Stage
The mirror phase occurs roughly between the ages of six and 18 months and corresponds to Freud's stage of primary narcissism. That is the stage of human development when the subject is in love with the image of themselves and their own bodies and which precedes the love of others (see Thurschwell 2000: ch. 5). Between the ages of six and 18 months the infant begins to recognize his/her image in the mirror (this does not mean a literal mirror but rather any reflective surface, for example the mother's face) and this is usually accompanied by pleasure. The child is fascinated with its image and tries to control and play with it. Although the child initially confuses its image with reality, he/she soon recognizes that the image has its own properties, finally accepting that the image is their own image - a reflection of themselves.
During the mirror stage, then, the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror, that his/her body has a total form. The infant can also govern the movements of this image through the movements of its own body and thus experiences pleasure. This sense of completeness and mastery, however, is in contrast to the child's experience of its own body, over which it does not yet have full motor control. While the infant still feels his/her body to be in parts, as fragmented and not yet unified, it is the image that provides him/her with a sense of unification and wholeness. The mirror image, therefore, anticipates the mastery of the infant's own body and stands in contrast to the feelings of fragmentation the infant experiences. What is important at this point is that the infant identifies with this mirror image. The image is him/herself. This identification is crucial, as without it - and without the anticipation of mastery that it establishes - the infant would never get to the stage of perceiving him/herself as a complete or whole being. At the same time, however, the image is alienating in the sense that it becomes confused with the self. The image actually comes to take the place of the self. Therefore, the sense of a unified self is acquired at the price of this self being an-other, that is, our mirror image. Lacan describes it like this:
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation - and which manufactures for all the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic - and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the infants entire mental development. (1977a : 4)
For Lacan, the ego emerges at this moment of alienation and fascination with one's own image. The ego is both formed by and takes its form from the organizing and constituting properties of the image. The ego is the effect of images; it is, in short, an imaginary function. Lacan is arguing here against Ego psychology and its tendency to prioritize the ego over unconscious processes as well as to equate the ego with the self. Lacan insists that the ego is based on an illusory image of wholeness and mastery and it is the function of the ego to maintain this illusion of coherence and mastery. The function of the ego is, in other words, one of mis-recognition; of refusing to accept the truth of fragmentation and alienation.
According to Lacan, from the moment the image of unity is posited in opposition to the experience of fragmentation, the subject is established as a rival to itself. A conflict is produced between the infant's fragmented sense of self and the imaginary autonomy out of which the ego is born. The same rivalry established between the subject and him/herself is also established in future relations between the subject and others. As Benvenuto and Kennedy put it, 'the primary conflict between identification with, and primordial rivalry with, the other's image, begins a dialectical process that links the ego to more complex social situations' (1986:58). To exist one has to be recognized by an-other. But this means that our image, which is equal to ourselves, is mediated by the gaze of the other. The other, then, becomes the guarantor of ourselves. We are at once dependent on the other as the guarantor of our own existence and a bitter rival to that same other.
Critics of Lacan's mirror stage argue that he in fact has things completely the wrong way round. In order for the subject to identify with an image in the mirror and then to mis-recognize themselves, they must first have a sense of themselves as a self. If the Lacanian subject is an alienated subject then this presupposes a 'non-alienated' subject in the first instance, otherwise there is nothing that one can meaningfully be said to be alienated from. Hence, the idea of a primary lack or absence is based upon the presupposition of a primary presence or unity. Lack in this sense is secondary and not primary. Anthony Elliott argues that the very terms of Lacan's mirror stage are all wrong: mirror reflection, lack and absence are not pre-existing phenomena but the work of the subject and the imaginary (see Elliott 1998: ch. 4). Lacan's use of the term alienation is rather different from that of his critics though. Through the mirror stage the infant imagines that it achieves mastery over its own body but in a place outside of itself. Alienation, in Lacan, is precisely this 'lack of being' through which the infant's realization (in both senses of the term: forming a distinct concept in the mind and becoming real) lies in an-other place. In this sense, the subject is not alienated from something or from itself but rather alienation is constitutive of the subject - the subject is alienated in its very being.
The Mirror, the Screen and the Spectator
As we saw above 'The Mirror Stage' was one of the first articles by Lacan to be translated into English and it was extremely influential in literary and cultural studies, paving the way for a more widespread acceptance of Lacanian ideas. From a literary perspective Lacan's conception of the imaginary and the formation of the ego has been utilized to give an account of both the construction of identity and subjectivity within texts as well as the relationships between characters (see Parkin-Gounelas 2001: ch. 1). It has been in film studies, though, that the notion of the imaginary has had the greatest impact. Lacan's mirror stage was seen to correspond to the relationship between film spectators and the image projected on to the screen. Probably the most important early essay to incorporate Lacanian psychoanalysis into film theory was Jean-Louis Baudry's 'Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus', first published in Cinethique in 1970. Baudry's article was concerned with the way in which cinematographic apparatus - that is to say, the instruments and technical base of film production, projection and consumption - is constitutive of meaning in its own right. According to Baudry, the significance or meaning of a specific film does not lie in the content of the story presented but rather in the whole set-up of cinematic spectatorship. This shift in the use of psychoanalysis from interpreting the content of individual texts to an analysis of how our subjectivity and identity are constructed through the structure and form of texts has been arguably the most important contribution of Lacanianism to contemporary cultural studies. Let us now see how Baudry used Lacan's concepts before turning to the critique of them.
According to Baudry, the cinematic apparatus constructs our position as film spectators through the position of the camera and the process of projection. The camera occupies both the position from which the images we see on the screen are shot and the position from which we subsequently see those images. The camera therefore situates both the objects of perception (the images on the screen) and the perceiving subject (the film spectator). In this double sense the apparatus of cinema locates us as film spectators and directs our gaze in a very specific way. What makes film different, however, from other forms of images that we see on a daily basis, such as advertisements, paintings or photographic images, is that film presents us not with an isolated image but with a succession of images. The function of the projector and the screen is to restore to that sequence of images the sense of continuity of movement necessary for us to construct meaning out of it. According to Baudry, it is the subject, the film spectator, who makes the necessary links and connections between the series of images displayed before him/her in order for these discrete images to become meaningful as a whole sequence. Therefore, continuity is an attribute of the subject and the subject's relationship to the images on the screen rather than of the film plot.
In this sense, the cinematic subject is formed through the function of the camera, the projector and the screen. It is in relation to the complex process of identification that exists between the spectator and image on the screen that apparatus theory draws most heavily on psychoanalytic ideas. Baudry describes film spectators in Lacanian terms as being placed in a darkened and enclosed space in which, whether they know it or not (and they usually do not), they are 'chained, captured or captivated' (1974-5: 45). What interests Baudry is the way in which Lacan's mirror or reflective surface is framed, limited and circumscribed. You will recall that the primary site of identification in the imaginary is the body itself, that this process takes place in front of a reflective surface before which the infant has only limited mobility, and that there is also an element of confusion for the infant between the reality of their own experience and the image before them. As with the imaginary, the cinematic mirror-screen reflects back images but not reality, although a reflection must always be a reflection of something. Identification, Baudry argues, takes place on two distinct levels in the cinematic process. First, the spectator identifies with what is represented on the screen - the events, characters etc. Second, the spectator identifies with the camera itself and it is the latter of these that is most important. For Baudry, the content of specific films is not really significant; it is the process that matters. Film and the cinematic apparatus, therefore, enacts the Lacanian dialectic of absence and presence. The preconditions for cinematic identification to take place are also the two preconditions for the imaginary and the mirror stage to take place, that is to say, the suspension of mobility and the primacy of the visual function. Baudry thus concluded his essay with the suggestion that the cinematic spectator is formed precisely in the same way as Lacan's divided and alienated subject. As we will now see there are a number of problems with Baudry's work. These problems were drawn out by one of the most important psychoanalytic film theorists of the 1970s and 1980s, Christian Metz, as well as by feminist film theorists, such as Laura Mulvey.
Christian Metz's Critique of Baudry
Christian Metz accepts Baudry's thesis that the primary identification of the spectator revolves around the camera rather than the images represented on the screen, but he questions whether or not this can be equated with Lacan's mirror stage. There is a sense, he suggests, in which we can see the process of cinematic identification as analogous to the mirror stage, but this is not a very precise sense. Metz points out that what the child sees in the mirror and identifies with is an image of its own body, and that it identifies itself as an object. In the traditional cinema, on the other hand, what the spectator sees on the screen is not an image of her or himself. Indeed, for Metz, the precondition for the spectator to recognise their absence from the screen or
the intelligible unfolding of the film despite that absence - is the fact the spectator has already known the experience of the mirror (the true mirror), and is thus able to constitute a world of objects without having first to recognise himself within it. (1982:46)
Metz defines identification with either characters or actors as secondary identification. The primary identification of the cinema is not with something that is seen (as in the mirror stage) but with something seeing, as Metz puts it, 'a pure, all-seeing and invisible subject' (1982:97). What is seen in this situation - the object on the screen - does not know it is being seen and it is this lack of awareness in the object that it is seen that facilitates the voyeuristic quality of the cinema. Film spectators are essentially voyeurs without being aware that they are voyeurs. Metz insists on the need to maintain a separation cinema and psychoanalysis. What psychoanalysis provides film studies with are the concepts through which we can understand how cinema works, especially notions of scopophilia (the overwhelming desire to look) and fetishism. We will see how these concepts work in our discussion of feminist film criticism in 'After Lacan'. First, we must consider one more groundbreaking article.
Laura Mulvey and Visual Pleasure
For both Baudry and Metz the cinematic spectator was conceived of as essentially a male voyeur. In an incredibly influential essay, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Laura Mulvey took up these debates and argued that the cinema produces a fundamentally male gaze or look and that the woman is always the object of this gaze. Mulvey suggested that there were three levels upon which the gaze operated in the cinema. First, there is the gaze of the camera as it is filming and this, following Metz, is always a voyeuristic gaze. Second, there are the looks intrinsic to the film narrative and these are usually the looks of male protagonists, as they position women characters within the narrative itself. Finally, there is the gaze of the spectator, and, as this gaze is facilitated by the previous two positions - of the camera and of the protagonists within the film - it is an inherently male position to adopt. Mulvey's formulation of the 'male gaze' provided the starting point for many debates around the possibility of elaborating feminine, black and gay spectator positions. Would women always remain the object of the spectacle or does Lacanian psychoanalysis offer alternative ways out? We will see how Lacanians addressed this issue in subsequent chapters.
In 'The Mirror Stage' Lacan draws on an extraordinary range of sources from philosophy, psychology and ethology, to reformulate the psychoanalytic conception of the ego and the imaginary. The imaginary is the realm of the ego, a pre-linguistic realm of sense perception, identification and an illusory sense of unity. The primary relation in the imaginary is a relation with one's own body, that is to say, the specular image of the body itself. These imaginary processes form the ego and are repeated and reinforced by the subject in his/her relationship with the external world. The imaginary, therefore, is not a developmental phase - it is not something that one goes through and grows out of - but remains at the core of our experience. As the sense of original unity and coherence in the mirror phase is an illusion, there is a fundamental disharmony regarding the ego. The ego is essentially a terrain of conflict and discord; a site of continual struggle. What Lacan refers to as a 'lack of being' is this ontological gap or primary loss at the very heart of our subjectivity. Lacan goes further, however, than just suggesting that we have lost an original sense of unity; he argues that this loss is constitutive of subjectivity itself. In short, the imaginary is a realm of identification and mirror-reflection; a realm of distortion and illusion. It is a realm in which a futile struggle takes place on the part of the ego to once more attain an imaginary unity and coherence.