Lacan's Metaphor of the Mirror Stage

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

Lacan's Metaphor of the Mirror Stage<a></a>

(From Volume 1 of the Seminar: Freud's Papers on Technique )<a></a>

<basefont size="4">

It wasn't without some preconceived plan, the rig out of which will, I hope, become apparent as it is revealed in its entirety, that last time I brought your attention to a case whose particular significance resides in its showing in miniature the reciprocal interplay of those three grand terms we have already had occasion to make much of- the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.

Without these three systems to guide ourselves by, it would be impossible to understand anything of the Freudian technique and experience. Many difficulties are vindicated and clarified when one brings these distinctions to bear on them.. ...

To clarify things a little for you, I've concocted a little model for you, a substitute for the mirror-stage.

As I have often underlined, the mirror-stage is not simply a moment in development. It also has an exemplary function, because it reveals some of the subject's relations to his image, in so far as it is the Urbild [original form] of the ego. Now, this mirror-stage, which no one can deny, has an optical presentation - nor can anyone deny that. Is it a coincidence?

The sciences, and above all those sciences in labor, as ours is, frequently borrow models from other sciences. My dear fellows, you wouldn't believe what you owe to geology. If it weren't for geology, how could one end up thinking that one could move, on the same level, from a recent to a much more ancient layer? It wouldn't be a bad thing, I'll note in passing, if every analyst went out and bought a small book on geology. There was once an analyst geologist, Leuba, who wrote one. I can't recommend you to read it too highly.

Optics could also have its say. . . .

Something almost infantile will do for us today, an optical apparatus much simpler than a compound microscope - not that it wouldn't be fun to follow up the comparison in question, but that would take us a bit far out of our way.

I cannot urge you too strongly to a meditation on optics. The odd thing is that an entire system of metaphysics has been founded on geometry and mechanics, by looking to them for models of understanding, but up to now it doesn't seem as though optics has been exploited as much as it could have been. Yet it should lend itself to a few dreams, this strange science which sets itself to produce, by means of apparatuses, that peculiar thing called images, in contrast to other sciences, which import into nature a cutting up, a dissection, an anatomy.

Don't think that, having said this, I am trying to make you believe that the moon is made of green cheese, or to make you take optical images for those images with which we are concerned. But, all the same, it is not for nothing that they share a name.

Optical images possess a peculiar diversity - some of them are purely subjective, these are the ones we call virtual, whereas others are real, namely in some respects, behave like objects and can be taken for such. More peculiar still - we can make virtual images of those objects which are real images. In such an instance, the object which is the real image quite rightly has the name of virtual object.

There is in truth something which is even more surprising, which is that optics is founded on a mathematical theory without which it is absolutely impossible to structure it. For there to be an optics, for each given point in real space, there must be one point and one corresponding point only in another space, which is the imaginary space. This is the fundamental structural hypothesis. It gives the impression of being overly simple, but without it one cannot write even one equation, nor symbolise anything - optics would be impossible. Even those who are not aware of this couldn't do a thing in optics if it didn't exist.

Here, too, the imaginary space and the real space fuse. Nonetheless they have to be conceived of as different. When it comes to optics, there are many opportunities for employing certain distinctions which show you the extent to which the symbolic source counts in the emergence of a given phenomenon.

On the other hand, there is in optics a set of phenomena which can be said to be altogether real since we are also guided by experience in this matter, but in which, nonetheless, subjectivity is implicated at every moment. When you see a rainbow, you're seeing something completely subjective. You see it at a certain distance as if stitched on to the landscape. It isn't there. It is a subjective phenomenon. But nonetheless, thanks to a camera, you record it entirely objectively. So, what is it? We no longer have a clear idea, do we, which is the subjective, which is the objective. Or isn't it rather that we have acquired the habit of placing a too hastily drawn distinction between the objective and the subjective in our little thought-tank? Isn't the camera a subjective apparatus, entirely constructed with the help of an x and a y which take up residence in the domain which the subject inhabits, that is to say that of language?

I will leave these questions hanging, to move straight on to a small example that I will try to get into your heads before I put it on the blackboard, because there is nothing more dangerous than things on the blackboard - it's always a bit flat.

It is a classical experiment, which used to be performed in the days when physics was fun, in the days when physics was really physics. Likewise, as for us, we find ourselves at a moment in time when psychoanalysis is really psychoanalysis. The closer we get to psychoanalysis being funny the more it is real psychoanalysis. Later on, it will get run in, it will be done by cutting corners and by pulling tricks. No one will understand any longer what's being done, just as there is no longer any need to understand anything about optics to make a microscope. So let us rejoice, we are still doing psychoanalysis.

Put a vast cauldron in place of me - which perhaps could quite happily stand in for me on some days, as a sound- box - a cauldron as close as possible to being a half-sphere, nicely polished on the inside, in short a spherical mirror. If it is brought forward almost as far as the table, you won't see yourselves inside it - hence, even if I were turned into a cauldron, the mirage effect that occurs from time to time between me and my pupils would not come about here. A spherical mirror produces a real image. To each point of a light ray emanating from any point on an object placed at a certain distance, preferably in the plane of the sphere's centre, there corresponds, in the same plane, through the convergence of the rays reflected on the surface of the sphere, another luminous point - which yields a real image of the object.

I am sorry that I haven't been able to bring the cauldron today, nor the experimental apparatuses. You'll have to represent them to yourselves.

Suppose that this is a box, hollow on this side, and that it's placed on a stand, at the centre of the half-sphere. On the box, you will place a vase, a real one. Beneath it, there is a bouquet of flowers. So, what is happening?

The experiment of the inverted bouquet
The bouquet is reflected in the spherical surface, meeting at the symmetrical point of luminosity. Consequently, a real image is formed. Note that the rays do not quite cross perfectly in my schema, but that is also true in reality, and for all optical instruments - one only ever gets an approximation. Beyond the eye, the rays continue their movement, and diverge once again. But for the eye, they are convergent, and give a real image, since the characteristic of rays which strike the eye in a convergent form is that they give a real image. Convergent in meeting the eye, they diverge in moving away from it. If the rays happen to meet the eye in the opposite sense, then a virtual image is formed. This is what happens when you look at an image in the mirror - you see it where it isn't. Here, on the contrary, you see it where it is - on the one condition that your eye be in the field of the rays which have already crossed each other at the corresponding point.

At that moment, while you do not see the real bouquet, which is hidden, if you are in the right field, you will see a very peculiar imaginary bouquet appear, taking shape exactly in the neck of the vase. Since your eyes have to move linearly in the same plane, you will have an impression of reality, all the while sensing that something is strange, blurred, because the rays don't quite cross over very well. The further away you are, the more parallax comes into play, and the more complete the illusion will be.

This is a fable we will put to a great deal of use. To be sure, this schema has no pretension to touch on anything which has a substantial relation to anything we deal with in analysis, the so-called real or objective relations, or the imaginary relations. But it allows us to illustrate in a particularly simple way what follows on from the strict intrication of the imaginary world and the real world in the psychic economy - now you are going to see how.

This little experiment pleased me. It is not me who invented it, it has been around for a long time, known as the experiment of the inverted bouquet. As it stands, in its innocence - these authors didn't make it up for us - it seduces us with its contingent details, the vase and the bouquet.

Indeed, the specific domain of the primitive ego, . . ., is constituted by a splitting, by a differentiation from the external world - what is included inside is differentiated from what is rejected by the processes of exclusion . . .and of projection. From then on, if there are any notions which are placed at the forefront of every psychoanalytic conception of the primitive stage of the ego's formation, it is clearly those of container and contained. This is how the relation of the vase to the flowers that it contains can serve us as a metaphor, a most precious one at that.

You know that the process of his physiological maturation allows the subject, at a given moment in his history, to integrate effectively his motor functions, and to gain access to a real mastery of his body. Except the subject becomes aware of his body as a totality prior to this particular moment, albeit in a correlative manner. That is what I insist upon in my theory of the mirror stage - the sight alone of the whole form of the human body gives the subject an imaginary mastery over his body, one which is premature in relation to a real mastery. This formation is separated from the specific process of maturation and is not confused with it. The subject anticipates on the achievement of psychological mastery, and this anticipation will leave its mark on every subsequent exercise of effective motor mastery.

This is the original adventure through which man, for the first time, has the experience of seeing himself, of reflecting on himself and conceiving of himself as other than he is - an essential dimension of the human, which entirely structures his fantasy life.

. . . . And it is here that the image of the body gives the subject the first form which allows him to locate what pertains to the ego and what does not. Well then, let us say that the image of the body, if we locate it in our schema, is like the imaginary vase which contains the bouquet of real flowers. That's how we can portray for ourselves the subject of the time before the birth of the ego, and the appearance of the latter.

I'm schematising, as you're quite well aware, but developing a metaphor, a thinking apparatus, requires that from the start one give a sense of what its use is. You will see that this apparatus here possesses a versatility which allows for all sorts of movement.. . .

For there to be an illusion, for there to be a world constituted, in front of the eye looking, in which the imaginary can include the real and, by the same token, fashion it, in which the real also can include and, by the same token, locate the imaginary, one condition must be fulfilled - as I have said, the eye must be in a specific position, it must be inside the cone.

If it is outside this cone, it will no longer see what is imaginary, for the simple reason that nothing from the cone of emission will happen to strike it. It will see things in their real state, entirely naked, that is to say, inside the mechanism, a sad, empty pot, or some lonesome flowers, depending on the case.<a></a><a></a><a></a><a></a>