JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


As the heir to early Modernist philosophy, Jacques Lacan sampled, in a pre-Postmodern fashion, a complex of philosophical ideas on how humans come into Being and how humans become socialized. Using combinations of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan “returned” to Sigmund Freud and reconsidered his canonical works from the oblique vantage point of language. Freudian philosophy was one of the last pure Enlightenment manifestations of self-actualization. But Lacan can be contrasted to Freud in respect to human autonomy, for Lacan denies autonomy and mastery and refutes the unity of consciousness and of the unconscious.  The disunity or the splitting apart of the human subject happens through language. If, as Lacan insisted, language produces a Real which does not have any corresponding “reality,” then question is, when does the subject become alienated from him or herself and under what circumstances? According to Lacan, the structural foundation of speech emerges in what he called “the Function of the Mirror Stage.”  Lacan delivered early version of this theory in 1936 and 1946 and the final and definitive version was published in 1966 in Écrits. By 1949 “stade du miroir” had become canonical to Lacan’s system, establishing a centrality to vision or to the specular that is reminiscent to the importance of the “gaze” in the work of his former teacher, Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1874-1932). The central role given to an act of seeing parallels Freud’s theory of the Oedipal complex, in which the male child “sees” that his mother does not possess the prized penis and is traumatized with fear that he, like his mother, will be castrated by his father. Vision or the ability to see oneself in a mirror is equally central to Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage.

Although it is possible that for Sigmund Freud the glimpsing of nude adults by impressionable children might have been possible—during his childhood, his family lived in one room—these acts of seeing whether in the flesh or in the mirror are best understood as allegorical. The development of a realization of the difference between the “inner world” and the “outer world” would be a better way to understand the Mirror Stage, as Lacan stated,

The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality – or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.

Under questioning of other philosophers who expressed concern over taking the idea of a “mirror” too literally, Lacan later shifted from “the mirror” to “mirroring behavior.” That said, Lacan based the idea of the Mirror Stage upon a number of pre-existing discourses (some of which involved an actual mirror) investigating the question of how one distinguishes between the self and the other and comes into consciousness or a full realization of the Self. The Mirror Stage, a term Lacan borrowed from Henri Wollen who in turn referred to the findings of Charles Darwin, occurs between six and eighteen months. Prior to that time, the infant has assumed a unified body image of itself to be found in the mother.  Enjoying the jouissance of fusion, the infant assumes a Totality until the “infans” becomes the subject. The presence of the “mirror” implies narcissism or self-identification, which is self love and the beginning of ego. But ego more properly evolves out of the counter to narcissism which is Aggresssivity or the confrontational image of the other. The First Narcissism is called the Mirror Stage in which the subject begins to project its “ideal ego” (ichideal) or future ego, while the Second Narcissism gives the human subject its ego (“moi”) or sense of self within the Symbolic.

The primacy he ascribes to vision is reasserted when Lacan points out that the child who is born prematurely—relative to an animal—and is thus dependent upon adults. In his or her immobile state, the human child “looks out” and sees others moving about, walking and running, and is able (unlike an animal) project him or herself forward in time—anticipates. The dependency upon adults, the fusion between child and adult, is allegorized as “Mother.” The concept of “mother” as literal is as problematic as the concept of “mirror” and yet Lacan’s contemporaries did not point out that many children were raised by women who were family members and or servants and that the “mother” was but one of many adults. However, the mother/adult is the being from whom the child, now self-aware, must separate herself from.  The separation is fraught with anxiety. The “I” is an imaginary recognition so that the “I” is essentially performative. The child is separated from a unifying image or the Mirror and finds integration only in the Symbolic field, the field of language. The Mirror Stage leads to the formation of a separate individual now separated (socialized) from the primary caregiver. This double splitting of the child from the mother and the child from its image or from others produces the I and the ideal ego which in turn produce the Imaginary and the ego ideal or the Other, the “autre Symbolic.”


The “whole” identity is sought in symbolic objects that symbolize the aim of desire, or objects petit a. Desire is aimed at the very lack it supports: the desire for something else. Metaphor and metonymy are related to knowledge and desire. The Metaphor (condensation or combination) is a typography of the unconscious, which is formed from the primal repression and is founded in the “emergence of signification.” Because the subject and knowledge are always barred from each other, the unconscious speaks through the Symptom or the Metaphor.  Metonymy (substitution), on the other hand, represents Desire or another signifier always out of reach. What is the object of desire? Lacan had to rethink Freud’s Oedipal complex in ways that reconfigured the “family romance” and transformed this “romance” through language. However, with both philosophers, the journey towards differentiation is horrifying, full of violence, and completely androcentric. Women or the Mother, defined by Lack and inadequacy, is that which must be repudiated, left behind. It is the Oedipal realization or recognition that the child must break away that makes the subject capable of seeing itself in a formal or structural relation to others: “I and Thou.”  To tell this tale of trauma, Lacan set up an (Marxist) Economy of Gain and Loss, and Exchange.

This familial analogy to economics occurs within the family structure: Mother, Father and Child. The child becomes aware of the Phallus, the first pure signifier, which establishes the position of the Father in the psychic structure of the child.  If the Oedipal complex is the process or evolution of the substitution of the father for the mother, or the separation of the child from the mother, then the Name-of-the-Father symbolizes (the) prohibition (of the Mother).  The Mother, the original object of Desire, is forbidden by the Law of the Father. The Mother, according to Lacan, was always conceived of by the child as “lacking” or needing him. In desiring her, the child imagines himself as the object of her desire to fulfill her essential lack. If the child feels fused with or at one with the Mother, then logically she is what he needs and he is what she lacks: Mother and child complete one another. Sadly, the Oedipal complex has a terminus: the child must experience Loss (of the Mother) in order to Gain admission into the order of language. The Exchange of Loss and Gain results in selfhood or socialization which is enforced by castration, the threat hanging over the (male) child who must always renounce the Mother who now characterized by her unredeemable Lack will always remain the child’s original and primal and unobtainable object of Desire. The separation of the child from the mother results in individuation. The child has perceived of himself as the phallus to the mother, but the Father will not permit this relationship and moves to separate the child of its mother and the mother from the child or phallic object.

As Joël Dor points out in his well-known Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: the Unconscious Structured Like a Language, the father forbids and frustrates and deprives the child. The object of frustration is the  penis–the mother does not have one, the little girl does not have one, and from the child’s perspective, the mother’s lack of a penis is frustrating. Frustration can never be assuaged. The child is deprived by the intervening father who is now understood as representing “the law.” The castration complex results when the child realizes that he is not and cannot be the phallic object of the mother’s desire. Not only does he have to give up the Mother but he also must consider the Law or the Name-of-the-Father. The Oedipal complex wanes when the child grasps the concept of the symbolic—the phallus is symbolic, the Law is symbolic, the Name-of-the-Father is symbolic. The passage from the Mirror Stage through the Oedipus complex is the primal repression which results in a Loss, but there is a Gain due to a new sense of a separate and unified body realized through the image of the Other in the Mirror.  The result of the sacrifice (of the mother, of fusion with her) is the ability to communicate as a human being through language which is the symbolic power to manipulate reality.

Human beings who must appease and/or augment the desire for totalizing images must communicate in their highly mediated fashion through a metonymic chain of signifiers that substitutions and displacements. The child becomes a speaking subject (the human being is submitted to language). Language and Sexuality, then, are fused through the symbolic Castration, which is a mediation, or a substitution, of desire (for the mother) through a metaphor which mediates the Law. The child is now a human subject who must submit to word play—you are being (played) spoken. The child must incorporate language on two levels. First, language is symbolic, it is a substitute for something than can never be known: the real. Second, language is not only a substitute it also symbolizes and is therefore an activity of double symbolization. The Oedipal stage is allegorical of a child’s passage into adulthood through socialization as he is initiated into language. Lacan makes it clear that grasping the symbolic logic of language is an arduous task that must be enforced by Order or the Phallus. As with Freud’s penis, Lacan’s phallus should not be taken literally. Being male, the philosophers selected this anatomical appendage to be the signifier of social order, which manifests itself through language. As a metaphor (the Phallus is the Social), the Phallus is central to Lacan and is central to the formation of the Symbolic. The Phallus is a parental metaphor, the symbol for authority.  The Name-of-the-Father is also a metaphor, signifying paternity and that which comes between the mother and child, separating this unity. The child must accept that the mother does not have the father’s authority or Phallus.

The child experiences a double loss:  the loss of the Phallus and the loss of the Mother.  This loss is Castration, which ushers in an unavoidable acceptance of alienation into language and submission to the ultimate authority of Law.  Law resides in the Place of the Name-of-the-Father and Desire resides in the place of the M/Other, producing a conflict between Desire and Law. “Desire” indicates a fundamental Lack and this lack is language or the process of speaking language, which produces a gap between saying and meaning. Lacan retold Freud’s account of a game his nephew played when his mother was not in the room, the “fort-da” game which is built on a Lack, a Loss and want of Being (the Mother).  By saying “fort” (here) (pulling a ball to himself) and then “da” (there) (pushing the ball away), symbolizing “here” (mother was here) and “there” (mother is not here), the child makes the absence of the mother present or understandable to himself through symbolization.  The child has made an important discovery: one can create a Symbolic mediation to express and explain the actual event.  This fantasy of here and there covers the loss of the mother and the desire for her return is externalized through language. Because it is built upon a loss or a lack that goes back to the original loss or lack, the separation from the mother, Desire is never fully satisfied.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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