The Mirror Phase

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The mirror phase (1936) The first text in the English edition of Ecrits is called 'The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as rev;ealed in psychoanalytic experience'. The essay is about the formation of identity, the moment of constitution of the self. Lacan begins his account - as it has been discussed in Chapter 5 I will be concise - with the first months of the infant's life. The infant is relatively unco-ordinated, helpless and dependent. Between the age of six and eighteen months the infant becomes aware, through seeing its image in the 'mirror, of its own body as a totality. The human infant seems to go through an initial stage of confusing the image with reality, and may try to grasp hold of the image behind the mirror, or seize hold of the supporting adult. Then comes the discovery of the existence of an image with its own properties. Finally, there is the realisation ~hat the image is its own - when it moves, its image moves, and so on. The mirror image is held together, it can come and go with a slight change of the infant's position, and the infant's mastery of the image fills it with triumph and joy. The, mirror image anticipates the mastery of its body that the infant has not yet objectively achieved. In other words, the infant's imaginary mastery of its body anticipates its biological mastery. Lacan believes that the formation. of the ego commences at the point of alienation and fascination with one's own image. The image is the first organised form in which the individual identifies him- or herself, so the ego takes its form from, and is formed by, the organising and constitutive qualities of this image. I want to stress the point that the ego is formed on the basis of


Lacan's Ecrits: A review 83 an imaginary relationship of the subject with his or her own body. The ego has the illusion of autonomy, but it is only an illusion, and the subject moves from fragmentation and insufficiency to illusory unity. Even though the infant is its own rival before being a rival of another, it is captured from very early on by the human form and conditioned by the other's look, for example, by the face and gaze of the mother. The mirror phase inaugurates an indentification with other' human images and with the world the subject shares with them. In the mirror phase one can see evidence of transitivism: the child who strikes another says that he or she has been struck; when one child is punished the other also cries. In both cases, the identity of the one remains indistinct from, confused with, the other. Transitivism occurs when the borders separating them are affirmed and simultaneously confused. Like Melanie Klei~, Lacan considers that the roots of primordial aggressivity can be seen in the earliest months of life. Aggressivity and narcissism appear to be tightly bound to one another. Lacan argues, in short, that the ego is not present from birth; it is something that develops. He believes that Freud put too much stress on the ego's ,adaptive functions, and that there was not enough emphasis on the ego's refusal to acknowledge thoughts and feelings from the unconsclOUS. Let me summarise the main points. The mirror phase is a moment of self-delusion, of captivation by an illusory image. Both future and past are thus rooted in an illusion. The mirror phase is the founding moment of the imaginary mode. It represents the first instance of what, according to Lacan, is the basic function of the ego: misrecognition (meconnaissance). The ego's function then is purely imaginary, and through its function the subject tends to become alienated. The ego 'neglects, scotomises, misconstrues'.5 It is an agency that constantly misreads the truth that comes to the subject from the unconscious. In Lacan's view, the ego's mastery of the environment is always an illusory mastery as a result of the way it is formed at the mirror ph,ase. Human subjects continue throughout life to look for an imaginary 'wholeness' and 'unity'. These quests, controlled by the ego, are quite futile.6 The mistake that many people make is that they confuse the human subject with the ego. The ego might give a feeling of permanence and stability to the subject, but this is an "

84 Jacques Lacan . illusion. And we must remember that the subject is neither unified nor stable. Lacan is, therefore, fundamentally opposed to any idea that one should help the analysand to strengthen his or her ego, or to help him or her adjust to society in any way. He is hostile to those who say that the aim of psychoanalysis is to produce healthy, welladjusted individuals who know what 'reality' is. Lacan stresses the workings of the unconscious and the role of unconscious impulses. In his view there is a basic 'lack of being' at the heart of the human subject. The subject comes to feel an illusory unity at the time of the mirror phase, but with the introduction of language, s/he has the possibility of at least representing his or her thoughts and feelings.