Jacques Lacan: Through the Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART FOUR: THE MIRROR STAGE, CONTINUED

Although Jacques Lacan can be characterized as a philosopher because his life work was based on reinterpreting the canonical writings of a philosopher, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, Lacan was a medical doctor, a psychoanalyst who had a practice, and, most of all, he was a teacher who lectured to large and illustrious audiences on Freudian theory. As a result his published works, like those of the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), are transcripts of his public talks. There is a quaint folksiness in the tone, as Lacan addresses his “dear friends” and refers to notes make on the chalkboard made in a previous class. Like Wittgenstein’s posthumous texts, the reader has an insight to how Lacan developed a topic. While Wittgenstein tended to think in discrete paragraphs that often presented different takes on the same point, Lacan worked in layers and would visit and revisit an aspect of Freud for decades, building a train of thought over time. Because Lacan was a scavenger who not only used canonical authors was also quickly picking up on the trends in European philosophy, it is necessary to read through his texts with a heightened awareness of the source of the ideas. A layered reading of the layers allows one to appreciate how Lacan re-interpreted his precursors.

Jacques Lacan echoed Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in his search for the foundation of society. For Marx, the formation of social relations was based upon the Mode of Production, for Sigmund Freud, the determining factor was human (male) sexuality, and for Lacan, the sexualization (Freud) of language becomes the mode (means) of producing human relations. The Marxist system of Exchange, Loss and Gain orders the movement through the Oedipal order: the child loses the mother but gains entry into society in exchange by accepting the Law of the Father who informs the child what society forbids.This primal repression (desire for the mother) initiates the child into the precincts of language. Even though Lacan, like Freud, views society through the prism of sexuality, his work can be read as a socialization process in which the subject, the child, is disciplined and indoctrinated into the “tribe.” That said, there is a severity and a violence to the process that highlights the extent to which mental force must be brought to bear in shaping a “prematurely born” human being to the manner demanded by the culture.

By 1953, Lacan has presented “The Rome Discourse” or “The Function and Field of Speech and Language inPsychoanalysis,” which asserted that the speaking subject is determined by language. Subjects are formed through participation in the discourse of others. The accession to the Symbolic Order can occur only through the Oedipus trauma in which the father intervenes and deprives the child of the primal object of desire—the mother, and deprives the mother of the phallic object—the child. The Forbidden has spoken through the Law of the Father and the subject must now identify with the Father, the Law. The Father symbolically “castrates” the mother by taking the child away and, which the child recognizes that incest is forbidden, and the Law is internalized. The procession through the Oedipal complex is linked to accession to culture and accession to language and the subject withdraws from immediacy of lived experience (fusion with the mother) and learns to accept a mediated life. Lacan asserted, “What is social is always a wound.”

In later writings, such as Ecrits of 1966, Lacan continued his disruption of the prestige of Presence or Self. In asserting that subjectivity is possible only through language, Lacan denied the transcendental ego (the Self) and relocated the ego in the social and traced the painful initiation of the child into the symbolic order. Thus, the subject is not a thing or a measurable entity, but an ongoing process. Language is the medium of exchange for the subject. Given that the subject is constituted by language, the ego must be a text, a fiction that is fixed by narcissistic fictions of self-love that provide faux unity. The ego is constituted from the Other through projection: I project my gaze towards you and determine that you are the not-me. Certain points Lacan was making about language bear repeating. If his assertions are to be taken to their logical conclusions, then a particular conclusion will be reached.

First, Lacan sets up the Symbolic Order as the Third Order between the subject and the real world and this relation is called the “Suture.” meaning a “mending” or a “fixing” of a “split.” As Jacques-Alain Miller, the outstanding Lacanian scholar and translator, expressed it, “…the signifying chain is structure of the structure…” The Suture names the subject’s relationship with the chain of discourse. Miller explained, “…subject is anterior to signifier and that signifier is anterior to subject – but only appears as such after the introduction of the signifier. The retroaction consists essentially of this: the birth of linear time. We must hold together the definitions which make the subject the effect of the signifier and the signifier the representative of the subject: it is a circular, though non-reciprocal, relation…”

Being fashioned in society involves collage, mimesis, and representation, but that which remains after submission is the most truthful and revealing of the system of socialization (and de-sexualization) and the most important remainder which is the underside of the mask, or that which has been repressed. The mask is a social form that is also a reflection of the “true being” or the traces of an authentic person. Therefore the ego is not the person, the “true” or “authentic” person, but the “persona,” the appearance, as in the sense of costume, that is generated by an act of imagination and is therefore positioned or situated on the side of the imaginary. To return to the concept of “splitting,” discussed in the previous post, the infans is cleaved between the ego which is always the Other to the (true) Self, because the action of splitting masks the Subject from the Self and the Self can be captured only in its mirror reflection.

As the result of the splitting of the primal person into a public persona, for Lacan, “subject” is a fictive construction, who is produced by the law that prohibits incest. The Subject is a fiction that is forged as the child transfers his or her Desire away from the primary love object, the Mother, who is now forbidden, to appropriate objects. Notice that Lacan’s theories, like those of Freud, have little reference to the homosexual and the law forces displacement of (only) heterosexualizing Desire. But as in much of Lacan, these concepts are theoretical or allegorical. For example, the “woman” is never the mark of subject and not an attribute of gender, for “femininity” of only a signification of Lack, and this signification signifies mainly for the male. In this instance, “woman” does not have Being.

“Being” is the Phallus or Having the Phallus: to be the Phallus is to be the signifier of the Desire of the Other. The Phallus appears as the signifier, which is to be the object that represents and reflects masculine heterosexualized Desire for the benefit of the Other. The Masculine Subject has the Phallus and the Other must confirm this possession. Women can only reflect the autonomous power of masculine subject/signifiers. Women appear as the Phallus through a masquerade of femininity and because she is the Lack, woman is in need of unmasking. This masquerade-as-Phallus is not just the denial of feminine desire, it is also the denial of the dependency of the female, who has no signifier, upon the Masculine order.

In what feminist scholars would declare to be a matricide, the aim of the Law is to refuse the Mother-as-Other by producing a third symbol, which imposes the possibility of alienation or Death of the Subject who denies authority. As has been stated before, Lacanian ideas on how the child moves through the Mirror Stage is fraught with violence and the Law exists on the side of Thantos (or Death), not Eros (or Life), and the drive to subjectivity is always the drive towards Death. Coming from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) by way of Georg Hegel (1771-1831), the idea that subjectivity or self-consciousness is the result of the human’s acceptance that Being is Death or that to be is to die was one of the founding concepts for Lacan. Under the pain and threat of death, the ego must not lose itself in the loved one but regain itself in the loss by submitting to the Symbolic, which is the Law, the Father.

In this Freudian and Lacanian universe of Loss and Gain, human subjectivity is formed through the agencies of power an domination. The subject will be driven by socially imposed guilt and anxiety and will become servile, cringing under the authority of the Law (of the Father) and dreading castration (further loss of power). As a result of this terrifying process, we, the victims, must wear the mask as a social form or conforming behavior. As we enter into the symbolic order of language we are fashioned by the order which installs masquerade and are marked by it as signified by the mask of custom and competency with language. Lacan makes the point that just as the human being is inauthentic—mask-waring–language is also split from the real. The symbolism of language can be only an indirect expression of “reality” in that it is not what it represents. Symbolization is a reference to, and not a reflection of, the self. The human tragedy is that life can be made only through language, which is never direct or immediate. Life is mediated and is filtered through language and thus is de-natured or de-naturalized and is split, severed, like the subject from that which cannot be symbolized.

Submission to the process separates each human from his or her “authentic” sexual self. Sexual desire consists, not of feelings or instincts, which are basic, primal and must be contained and governed, but of symbols, laws, concepts and ideologies—all of which are arbitrary and formalize individual experience but bring these strong needs under social control. Strangely, from a female perspective, sexuality is organized around the Phallus, which for a woman, is the symbol of Lack and speaks to the idea of the woman being castrated. Male-female elationships are always organized around the possession and non-possession of the Phallus, which due to its erectile form, defines the Lack. Without inquiring as to why or how the Phallus must be always erect it can be said that Lack is a chronic state of self-insufficiency born from the foundation of the Law or to put it in another way, the penis, in the normal course of its day, is only occasionally erect.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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    Jacques Lacan: Through the Mirror Stage