Lacan’s model of the mirror stage allows one to understand the concept of the ‘I’ in the human psyche and also provides an opposition against Decarte’s famous philosophical statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – I think therefore I am. R. In simple terms the mirror stage is the dramatization of the splitting and division of the ego and the image that the ego projects of itself. Lacan expands on many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas, particularly regarding the iceberg model (which incorporates the superego, the ego and the id) and therefore his theories function on the assumption that the mind is not a unified form. R.
In physical reality the mirror stage is the process by which an infant recognises their image in a mirror, and the beginning of their ‘situational apperception’. R. This ‘situational apperception’ is the ability to understand one’s physicality and one’s relation in the physical world, in regards to objects and people. Lacan parallels this moment of recognition with Kohler’s theory of Aha-Erlebnis, which is a moment when the components of a task or problem come together to allow understanding and meaning, the metaphorical illumination of a lightbulb over one’s head. R.
When this moment of Aha-Erlebnis occurs it allows the child to further explore their situational apperception, this is where the human infant differs from animals, as animals quickly lose interest in their reflection, whilst for infants their image will be a lifelong obsession. At this locus in the mirror stage the child will explore a number of different relations, between their reflected image, their reflected environment, their actual body and their actual environment in multiple combinations.
Lacan describes in his essay how the child will physically strain forward towards the mirror in order to gaze at their reflection, this physical strain to know oneself is symbolic for the psychological straining to know oneself which happens later in life. Lacan draws on the work of James Mark Baldwin, a child psychologist who linked the premises of evolution to the development of the human psyche, R. and defines that a child will experience the mirror stage at approximately six months of age. Development through the process of the mirror stage ends at the age of eighteen months, although it is important to stress that although the process of this stage has finished, the affects of the mirror stage will be carried into adult life.
The mirror stage allows the individual to invest libido in themselves, and to create a dynamic relationship between itself and its image. Lacan comments that this self-investment of libido is natural in humans, exclaiming that to hold an image of oneself is an ‘ontological structure of the human world’. R.
I am lead however to question what the affects of the mirror stage on the infant are? The formation of the ‘imago’ in the psyche, is the straightforward, yet unexplanatory answer. So I shall expand. The imago, historically, refers back to the term in Christianity ‘imago dei’ which refers to the perfect image of God which humanity was created in and should strive to achieve. R. However the psychanalytical terminology of imago, Lacan borrows from Carl Gustave Jung, proposing that humans compile their personality from the collective unconscious, creating an ideal image of themselves, the imago. R. This means that the imago is external, it is other because it is constructed, it is what the child sees in the mirror and strives to become.
At this age the infant is physically utterly helpless, as they lack motor coordination and so are dependent on their parent or guardian. The child is incomplete and imperfect which is why the imago, their reflection, appeals to the child. The imago appears as a whole, complete and unified, the disparate correspondence between the inadequate reality and experiences of the child with the wholeness of the imago leads to the construction of an idealised ‘self-image’.
This is the creation of the ‘Ideal-I’ which the child for the rest of their existence will strive to accomplish. They will forever try to attain this fictional identification, especially once they are influenced by ‘social determination’ – the conventional principles of achieving and fitting in. R. However the Ideal-I is internally and eternally discordant with the actual self. By identifying with the Ideal-I as self, it is a méconnaissance – a misrecognition, for the Ideal-I will never be homogenous with the actual subject.
This illusion of the self as whole may appear to be accurate regarding the closeness of the reflection in the mirror with the actual body, yet the reflection is reversed, and never exactly matches up with the individual. Lacan proposes that the reflection is somewhat of a ‘gestalt’ which is a form whose meaning and worth exceeds the sum of its components and fragments. This theory is based on the idea that we do not regard the world in its individual components but as a pattern of meaningful forms. For example we do not recognise a car for its mechanic parts, its wheels, windows, etcetera but as a whole, as a motorised mode of transport. Lacan applies the meaning of the gestalt to his principle of the imago, creating a stable, whole form which anticipates the self control and stability the child will achieve in later life, it represents the potential of the ‘I’. Ultimately however the gestalt and the components do not match up, and the potential can never be realised. This illusion of stability paired with its unattainability shapes adult life, Lacan insists mainly in a detrimental way.
However the gestalt is vital to the subject for to place themselves in the visual, physical world one must be able to picture oneself to locate onself in the visible world. This is especially poignant as the mental image of the subject’s body often appears in dreams, hallucinations and projections.
Lacan refers to human knowledge as ‘paranoic’, meaning that we are haunted by our other, our imago and also by our ultimately weak nature. The ‘I’ is essential in order to gloss over this weakness and essentially to act as a buffer between our actual self and the physical and social reality of our world, it is the bridge between our internal and external reality. Lacan says that this reliance on the ‘I’ stems from human kinds ‘organic insufficiency’, that as an infant we use the ‘I’ to recompense their initial physical lack and weakness, yet this transcends through their adult life.
Lacan argues that humans are all born prematurely, this is based on the fact that humans cannot talk, walk or fend for themselves in any general way. In comparison animals become very adept at surviving very quickly, in a matter of weeks they may be entirely independent. For humans the process to arrive at a capable, strong and coordinated being is a lengthy one.
The mirror stage allows the infant to feel less vulnerable, it allows the child to anticipate its maturity and wholeness, transforming the unnerving fragments of the infant’s body into a form of totality and stability. Lacan uses the metaphor of the mirror stage as an orthopaedic brace, holding together the fragmented body, so that one should not fall to pieces.
The concept of the body in fragments usually surfaces in dreams, with the subject dreaming of disfigured, pierced, missing, disjointed limbs. Recurrent dreams of this type, Lacan states, are often symptoms of schizophrenia or hysteria. To depict more vividly these dreams of body fragments Lacan alludes to the work of Heironymous Bosch and so I shall refer to the works of Salvador Dalí. (INCLUDE DETAILS). R.
Whilst the fragments are depicted in this disturbing fashion it is interesting that the ‘I’ is often symbolized by fortresses and enclosures that divide the landscape into interior and exterior spaces.
This ‘method of symbolic reduction’ is important in literary criticism as it is important to recognise that the author can never be considered an absolute subject because he is a structure himself within the dynamic of psychic drives and sociolinguistic conventions. So the symbols which conduce literature need not be considered as products of creativity but as the production of a basic psychological organisiation of humans in culture.
Once the mirror stage process comes to an end the subject will invest a number of qualities and attributes in their projected self, as and when they are influenced by social situations, regarding expectations and prohibitions as well as intrapersonal relationships.
The affects of the mirror stage simultaneously support and disable human kind, the creation of the Ideal-I allow us to organise the chaotic fragments of our being into a sense of wholeness and stability, yet its unattainability leads us to strive for the impossible, for a projection of ourselves at a level which we can never achieve. Lacan rather bleakly exposes humanity’s struggle to achieve their desires and the inevitability that this can never be achieved. The creation of the Ideal-I also means that one will never know oneself, the méconnaissance stops us from identifying with our actual being and projects our sense of identity onto the Ideal-I. This is perhaps the main opposition Lacan holds against existentialism as they argue that existence is meaningless and it is the human’s responsibility to create our own meaning, R. which means humans must be self-aware, self-present, which is exactly what Lacan argues we are not, for we are disillusioned by the imago.
The application of the mirror stage to textual analysis is a multi-faceted exploration, and there are a number of things to consider. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is to examine the protagonists of fiction and their relation to the author. It is in human nature to create and construct our own character, (made evident by the mirror stage) and so working on the principle that ourself will always be ‘other’, the fabrication of a fictional protagonist is perhaps in someways no different and no more ‘other’ than the Ideal-I.
As discussed earlier the author cannot be considered an absolute subject, the author is fragmented and so that is how we must perceive their writing, their work is not a product of creativity but a system of symbols, language that is a product of their psyche.
The affects of the mirror stage itself can often be found in writing, and the character’s search for the Ideal-I is particularly obvious when a mirror is actually included, for instance in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’ which is from the perspective of a mirror who observes ‘A woman bends over me./Searching my reaches for what she really is’. R. In the Brothers Grimm tale of ‘Snow White’ R. the evil stepmother is emotionally tyed to her mirror, it determines her identity, an extension of herself, and when the mirror tells her she is no longer the fairest in the land her perception of herself, (her Ideal-I) shatters. R. In ‘Through the Looking Glass’ Alice recognises the otherness of her reflection in the mirror, when she looks into the mirror she sees a completely different world, foreign and other to everything about her actual reality. R.
Regarding the principle of the unreliable narrator the mirror stage adds another facet of the character to consider, in the same way an unreliable narrator could give a biased account of a story it also means the character could be giving an account of their Ideal-I rather than their actual self.
Lacan’s principles of the mirror stage offer an interesting insight into our psyche, and particularly the nature of how one constructs a personality and character for oneself. Lacan’s account seems credible, and is supported by biological knowledge such as the example of the female pigeon reaching sexual maturity when there are members of the species present or when the pigeon sees its reflection, or the instance of the locust who changes into another form when it sees movement similar to that made by its species. Lacan also draws on Callois’ theory of ‘legendary psychathenia’ which is the transition of an organism into another form via contact with an external stimulus. The incorporation of empirical, biological knowledge stabilizes Lacan’s psychoanalysis and cements his account as reason rather than speculation.
However I find Lacan’s attitude reductive and unnecessarily bleak regarding his assertion that our striving to become our own perfect protagonist is a disability, when in fact our misrecognition allows us to invest the best of ourselves in a projection, and helps to combat the feeling of helplessness in the reality of our physical world. Whilst our misrecognition may be ignorance, ignorance is bliss.
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