Optical model

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optical model [1]

Sigmund Freud

Freud compares the psyche with an optical apparatus such as a microscope or a camera in The Interpretation of Dreams.[2]

Jacques Lacan

Lacan also uses optical apparatuses at several points in his work.

For example, he uses the camera to provide a "materialist definition of the phenomenon of consciousness."[3]

Lacan argues that optics is a useful way of approaching the structure of the psyche because images play an important role in psychic structure [4].

However, like Freud, Lacan warns that such an approach can never provide more than rather crude analogies, since optical images are not the same as the kind of images which are the object of psychoanalytic research.

For this reason, Lacan soon replaces optical images with topological figures which are intended to prevent imaginary capture.

Nevertheless, as Freud said of his own optical models, "we need the assistance of provisional ideas."[5].

The Optical Model

The optical model first appears in 1954 [6], and is reproduced in the seminar, Le transfert, on transference (1960-1), and elsewhere.

It is basically an optical experiment which is constructed by means of a plane mirror and a concave mirror.

The concave mirror produces a real image of an inverted flower-pot, hidden from view by a box, which is then reflected in the plane mirror to produce a virtual image.

This virtual image is only visible to a subject who places himself within a particular area of vision.


Lacan uses the opticall model to illustrate various points.

Two of the most important points are the structuring role of the symbolic order and the function of the ego-ideal.

Symbolic Structure

1.The optical model illustrates the way that the position of the subject in the symbolic order (represented by the angle of the plane mirror) determines the way in which the imaginary is articulated with the real.

"My position in the imaginary is only conceivable insofar as one finds a guide beyond the imaginary, on the level of the symbolic plane."[7]

The optical model thus illustrates the primary importance of the symbolic order in structuring the imaginary.

The action of psychoanalytic treatment can be compared to the rotation of the plane mirror, which alters the position of the subject in the symbolic.

Ego Ideal

2.The optical model also illustrates the function of the ideal ego, which is represented in the diagram as the real image, in opposition to the ego-ideal, which is the symbolic guide governing the angle of the mirror and hence the position of the subject.[8].


Figure 12 The optical model Source: Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, trans. with notes by John Forrester, New York: Norton: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

See Also


  1. French: modèle optique
  2. Freud. 1900a: SE V. p.536
  3. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. Chapter 4
  4. Template:Sl p.76
  5. Freud, 1900: 536
  6. Template:Sl p.124
  7. Template:Sl p.141
  8. Template:Sl p.141