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Mirror stage

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French: stade du miroir

Jacques Lacan


The concept of the mirror stage is Lacan's first important contribution to psychoanalytic theory, Lacan's first innovation within the field of psychoanalysis, propounded at an IPA conference at Marienbad in 1936. The concept is a constant point of reference throughout Lacan's work, and becomes increasingly complex as it is reworked in various different contexts.

Child Psychology

The "mirror test" was first described by the French psychologist and friend of Lacan, Henri Wallon, in 1931, although Lacan attributes its discovery to Baldwin.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 1</ref> It refers to a particular experiment which can differentiate the human infant from his closest animal relative, the chimpanzee. The six-­month-old child differs from the chimpanzee of the same age in that the former becomes fascinated with its reflection in the mirror and jubilantly assumes it as its own image, whereas the chimpanzee quickly realizes that the image is illusory and loses interest in it.

Structure of Subjectivity

Lacan's concept of the mirror stage represents a fundamental aspect of the structure of subjectivity. Whereas in 1936-49, Lacan seems to see it is a stage which can be located at a specific time in the development of the child with a beginning (six months) and an end (eighteen months),<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 5</ref> by the end of this period there are already signs that he is broadening the concept.

By the early 1950s Lacan no longer regards it simply as a moment in the life of the infant, but sees it as also representing a permanent structure of subjectivity, the paradigm of the imaginary order; it is a stadium (stade) in which the subject is permanently caught and captivated by his own image:

[the mirror stage is] a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. 1951b. "Some Reflections on the Ego," Int. J. Psycho-Anal., vol. 34, 1953: 14</ref>

Dual Relationship

As Lacan further develops the concept of the mirror stage, the stress falls less on its "historical value" and ever more on its structural value.

Thus by 1956 Lacan can say:

The mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 17</ref>

Ego Formation

The mirror stage describes the formation of the ego via the process of identification; the ego is the result of identifying with one's own specular image.

Prematurity of Infant

The key to this phenomenon lies in the prematurity of the human baby: at six months, the baby still lacks coordination. However, its visual system is relatively advanced, which means that it can recognize itself in the mirror before attaining control over its bodily movements.

The baby sees its own image as whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is experienced as a fragmented body; this contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with its own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens the subject with fragmentation, and the mirror stage thereby gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image.

In order to resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image; this primary identi­fication with the counterpart is what forms the ego. The moment of identifica­tion, when the subject assumes its image as its own, is described by Lacan as a moment of jubilation,<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 1</ref> since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery:

[the child's] joy is due to his imaginary triumph in anticipating a degree of muscular co-ordination which he has not yet actually achieved.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. 1951b. "Some Reflections on the Ego," Int. J. Psycho-Anal., Vol. 34, 1953: 15; Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 79</ref>

However, this jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the child compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 345; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 186</ref>

Ideal Ego

This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness which sustains the ego in anticipation. The mirror stage shows that the ego is the product of misunderstanding (méconnaissance and the site where the subject becomes alienated from himself.

Imaginary and Symbolic

It represents the introduction of the subject into the imaginary order. However, the mirror stage also has an important symbolic dimension. The symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying or supporting the infant.

The moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head round towards this adult, who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image.<ref>Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre X. L'angoisse, 1962-3. Unpublished. Seminar of 28 November 1962</ref>


The mirror stage is also closely related to narcissism, as the story of Narcissus clearly shows (in the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection).<ref>* "Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je." Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966: 93-100 ["The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I." Trans. Alan Sheridan. Écrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock, 1977; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977: 1-7].</ref>

See Also