From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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The name Lacan gives to this process of identity construction is méconnaissance: "self-knowledge (me-connaissance) is synonymous with misunderstanding (méconnaissance), because the process by which the ego is formed in the mirror stage is at the same time the institution of alienation."[1] In a typically Lacanian play on words, Evans points to the fundamental constitutive feature of the imaginary order and of all imaginary processes. The logic which lends this pun more weight that simply that of a clever word-play is that of an implicit grammar behind the imaginary identification of ego with specular image. In contrast to the ego-ideal ("I want to be that"), the ego is a version of "I am that."11 The symbolisation of this identification in this way allows us to see clearly into the irrationality governing the imaginary. The predicate "that" in the ego characterisation "I am that" deprives the subject ("I") of its content; the descriptive verb "am" effectively becomes a transitive that reveals the hollowness of the ego in its attempt to attain wholeness through the identification with and assimilation of an endless variety of "thats." The illusions of identification produced in the imaginary, "those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity"[2] thus turn out to be "surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure."[3]

This process of méconnaissance, originally conceived of by Lacan as merely a stopping point on the path of psychic development (in his work from 1936-1949), becomes a constitutive feature of the mental life of the individual as the mirror stage loses its temporal focus and takes on a spatial reference (from 1950 on)[4] The "stade" of the original French formulation "stade du miroir" expands its meaning to include not only the temporal "stage" of routine translation, but also the spatial "stage" or "arena" of its secondary meaning.[5] In this expanded conceptualization of the lasting effects of the mirror stage as the inaugurating moment of the imaginary order, the original méconnaissance that engenders the ego is compulsively repeated in a series of identifications with (and potentially disabling fixations on) objects in their imaginary capacities (i.e. imaginary objects):

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for 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 subject’s entire mental development.[6]

The erstwhile transformative stage of ego development thus becomes an enduring psychic structure which constitutes the unsymbolised interiority of "identity." Coeval with the ego, the imaginary thus persists as the ground on which it thrives, holding its own against the violent encroachments of the real and the divisive incursions of the symbolic.

Perhaps the best example of the concrete instance of the imaginary identification between the ego and imaginary objects is provided by the way in which advertising works to create irrational but compelling associations with objects, even in the face of the obvious incommensurability between the objects and that which is associated with them. Thus most commonly clothing or automobile commercials will use only slim, attractive spokespeople in clean, hygienic, and affluent surroundings as a way of creating matrices of imaginary associations around the objects for which they wish to create a desire. When the individual sees these associations made, he or she "recognises" some aspect of himself or herself in the imaginary field created around the object, identifies with it, and seeks to possess it as a concrete way of declaring his or her identity. The force of these imaginary identifications is manifest in the fact that even though they collapse into insipid manipulations with the least attempt at symbolisation (that is, representation in language, rather than merely by associations of images), they nonetheless persist as powerful determinants of individual ego-formations and behaviour patterns.13 In more theoretical terms, the original identificatory procedures which brought the ego into being [i.e. the mirror stage] are repeated and reinforced by the individual in his relationship with the external world of people and things. The imaginary is the scene of a desperate delusional attempt to be and to remain ‘what one is’ by gathering to oneself ever more instances of sameness, resemblance and self-replication; it is the birthplace of the narcissistic ‘ideal ego.’[7]

The circularity and self-referentiality of this process is abundantly clear in Bowie’s articulation, as the ego both constructs an ideal version of itself on the basis of various imaginary features with which it would like to be identified, and then acts as though it unpremeditatedly "recognises" itself in objects that bear an imaginary correspondence to that ideal. Basically, the imaginary is the scene in which the ego undertakes the perpetual and paradoxical practice of seeking "wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity" through identification with external objects. Each such identification is necessarily illusory, however, as it is but a pale imitation of the originary wholeness that was sacrificed in the primal identification of the ego with its specular image in the mirror stage.

There is, then, no room in Lacanian psychoanalysis for a conception of the self as some essential feature of one’s identity to which one must be true, which one must "find," and above all which one must know.14 The "self" as traditionally conceived is but a monumentalisation of the illusory ego; indeed, Lacan goes so far as to state that this notion of a coherent "self" or ego is in fact a sign of pathology: "The ego is structured exactly like a symptom. At the heart of the subject, it is only a privileged symptom, the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man."[8] Part of Lacan’s reaction against the line of philosophical thought that descends directly from Descartes, the abandonment of the self or ego as the primary category of individual being is one with his insistence on the illusory nature of the imaginary order and his allegiance to the supremacy of the symbolic order: "Lacan sets out to inhabit the linguistic dimension that the Cartesian cogito failed to acknowledge. The subject is irremediably split in and by language, but ‘modern man’ still has not learned this lesson."[9] Picking up where Freud left off, Lacan proposes to make this lesson inescapable.

See Also


  1. Evans 109
  2. Evans 82
  3. Evans 82 12
  4. Evans 115.
  5. Evans 115
  6. Ecrits 4
  7. Bowie 92
  8. Lacan S1 62, qtd. in Evans 51
  9. Bowie 77