Through the Looking Glass

It seems a while since I dragged an obscure and complex theorist into the light of day, so stand up, Jacques Lacan! Your turn has come! Lacan was a psychoanalyst with monumental influence, not only over the psychoanalytic discipline but also over complicated theory per se. Lacan didn’t publish so very much himself, but he gave a series of legendary seminars from 1953 to his death in 1980, and these seminars were reconstructed from students notes and recordings and have been published piecemeal ever since. Just about anyone who was ever anyone in French theory attended those seminars at one time: Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, Kristeva, Lévi-Strauss. Even today if you fancy yourself as a bit of an intellectual, you feel obliged to give Lacan the once-over, even if it’s only to place the book down hurriedly and walk away in search of aspirin. Curiosity and cussedness combined to make me spend my requisite graduate time with Lacan although I’ve never really become deeply involved in his work. My experience of reading it is of feeling like I understand what he is saying at the level of each sentence, but recognizing that as those sentences build up they require a level of in-fill, and insight and the ability to hold a complex thought over such a period of time that I am quite lost by the paragraph’s end. Fortunately kind and brilliant scholars have written explanatory texts about Lacan and between them, and the original bits I sort of understood, I’ve got to grips with some of his concepts.

Fortunately there is fun Lacan trivia as well to ease the reading process. He was quite a character, was old Jacques. He was renowned for his eccentric delivery of his lectures, pausing often for long silence in which he would sigh and seem to struggle to find the words. There was also a lot of, well, shall we say interest, in his unpredictable therapeutic practice. Most therapy offers the patient a session that lasts 50 minutes to an hour. Lacan, by contrast, would talk until he felt he had made a point of some significance, which could – and often did – mean no more than five or ten minutes. Most of Lacan’s patients conducted their own analyses out in the waiting room in a collaborative group. One would go into the great guru, be out again in a few minutes and then spend the rest of the time waiting to be recalled in discussion with the other patients as to why he should have been chucked out this time. Perhaps the ability to get up and walk out once and for all was indicative of the return to mental health. Still, this combined with the elusive quality of his prose has meant that Lacan is viewed either as a genius or a charlatan, with not much middle ground in between.

Undeniably some of his concepts have had a profound and lasting impact on psychoanalytic thinking. The one I’m going to tell you about is the moment in a baby’s life when it takes on an identity for the first time and prepares to acquire language. Big, important moment in a child’s life, then, and in Lacan’s developmental narrative it’s called the mirror stage. Based on the empirical evidence of a baby’s fascination with its own mirror image (and they do get completely fascinated) Lacan extrapolates a new dimension opening up in the child’s mind. Up until this point the baby’s experience of itself has been one of fragmentation and dislocation. You see babies in their cots, waving their limbs around and suddenly a hand or foot will enter their field of vision. At that point the child will grab the limb with interest and perplexity, as if to say ‘dammit, I know this is useful for something – if only I knew what!’ Well, when they realize that the image in the mirror is a representation of themselves, they get an inkling of how the world might fall into place. Rather than random sensations in uncertain locations, they now have a whole, coherent, unified figure on which to base their sense of selfhood. That thing in the mirror is what they look like from the outside, and it’s a huge epiphany, one of the biggest and most consequential we ever have.

Lacan is scathing about this moment. Chimpanzees also like the look of their image, he says, but they have the sense to just walk on by. They don’t base their sense of identity in a reflection. This moment, so fundamental to our development is also the moment of our greatest tragedy, according to Lacan. From this point onwards we are what he calls split subjects; the random chaos of sensations is far closer to the truth of subjecthood, but instead we cling to a sense of composite coherence based on what we look like from the outside. We invest ourselves in the image, rather than in our bodies, a move that means we are all completely foutu, if you will pardon my French. It’s a form of alienation that is at the same time a gateway to the immense compensation of language. For Lacan says that the child’s equation of body plus image to make the self creates the structure in the infant’s mind in which the word (or the image) can be understood to be the thing itself. It doesn’t seem strange to the child that the word ‘chair’ refers to that wooden thing over there, for after all that reflected image in the mirror refers to, and is the same as, itself. What would happen, you might ask, to a child brought up in a world without mirrors? Well, Lacan says that the same kind of revelation can happen with the mother, as the child realizes it shares a bond of similarity with her. But mothers are ever more complicated, because as the child starts to perceive that the mother is a separate person (as well as a future template) so it slowly recognizes that it is not everything for the mother in the same way that she is everything for it. The child thus perceives light shining through a crack of difference between them, and Lacan proposes that at this point so another dimension opens in the child’s mind – that of imagination. The child dimly understands that the mother has desire, that she wants things that are not the child, and this provides the genesis of the imagination, of fantasy, of fiction-making (if you like) as the child struggles to understand what it might be that the mother wants.

Not everyone likes them, but I find these impossible narratives from the land before conscious thought completely riveting. Yes, this kind of psychoanalysis is a speculative venture, because no child can ever tell us what happens, just as we do not know what lies beyond death. But you only have to watch a small child for a little while to be astounded at the depths of rage and adoration and desire that shake their little bodies from head to toe. Whatever we might prefer to think, children live big, they have grand passions and overwhelming sensations, and the life that stretches out before them is one of continually tailoring themselves to their context and their limited possibilities. Our reluctant and confused adaptation to the unwieldy shape of life is a story I can never hear too often, even when it’s the complex and demanding Lacan who’s telling it.


15 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass

  1. Pingback: Lacan and the mirror stage explained « Foucault blog

  2. I keep feeling like I should be up on Lacan but find myself falling into A COMA of non comprehension and thence boredom whenever I try. So thanks for writing this so lucidly. I understood every word!

  3. Ms Make Tea, I know that coma well. Fortunately there are people like Malcolm Bowie and John Forrester and Trista Selous who have written about Lacan in brilliant and helpful ways. I would not have got far without them!

  4. Thanks Litlove, I’m one miniscule step nearer to walking with Lacan, in my development, which makes me less supine than usual when I try to get into his ideas. Normally I find it like watching one of those programmes in which Steven Hawking or similar explains black holes, bending of light and time and quantum mechanics. I follow all the way to end, turn off the set and wonder what it was all about within three seconds flat. Is the mirror stage where vanity begins? Without it would we all be less self-conscious in life? I’m afraid mirrors always have this link for me after studying Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ for A-level way back.

  5. Hm, I visited a therapist once who made quick work of me, too. Must be a Lacanite. The mirror thing is so modern, I wonder how infants developed throughout pre and ancient history. I find it equally interesting to observe one of my dogs, a beagle who spends a good amount of time lying or sitting in front of a mirror I have on the floor, just staring at himself.

  6. I had to read Lacan’s mirror lecture in college and experienced the coma Make Tea mentions. Your comments make sense, though understanding on my part is still far away. Maybe one day I will eventually get it 🙂

  7. Nils – it’s lovely to have you here just whenever you can drop by. I rather like the link between the mother and imagination. After all, something has to awaken the imagination and when babies are tiny there is nothing in their world but its parents. They have to prefigure everything else that comes. Still, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea as an explanatory narrative, I know! Bookboxed, yup, that’s exactly what the experience of reading Lacan is like! Vanity, pride, relief, revelation, these things are so tied together I wonder how they could ever be prised apart. It strikes me again and again how extraordinary complex is the human mind. Quillhill – well, as I mentioned briefly above, Lacan felt that mothers fulfilled the same function as mirrors, so that would account for pre-mirror days. It’s also possible of course that pre-civilised man was a very different kettle of fish to the twentieth century animal. I love the story about your dog – how very intriguing! If he ever acquires language, do promise to blog about it! Stefanie – it took me several books, many weeks and a lot of headaches to get my head around it for the first time. But the penny did drop eventually, and I was fascinated by the whole set of psychoanalytic concepts and really wanted to understand! One can live very well without them, however!

  8. got to love Lacan…but Bruce Fink’s books on Lacan are far easier to approach than Lacan’s original writings…of course Zizek is just entertaining…try downloading some of zizek’s lectures onto an ipod and listen to him go over Lacan’s theories while doing housework…slowly it all begins to seep in…incidentally come and take a fun quiz on Lacan and Indian food: Take the Rajma Rorschach Test: what kind of crazy are you?

    there’s a bit of Alice there as well…

  9. I do have a Bruce Fink book, and it is remarkably clear. I adore Zizek, and understand Lacan much better through his entertaining anecdotes. I’ve never thought of listening to him whilst doing the housework, however, and this is clearly a big oversight! I will definitely come over and do the test at the first opportunity!

  10. That’s a great explanation, Litlove! I’m guessing many a frustrated college or grad student will come across your blog and receive enlightenment as they struggle through Lacan 🙂 I struggled through a bit of him in grad school — it’s a bit like a rite of passage, isn’t it?

  11. Your thoughts on understanding Lacan on a sentence-by-sentence basis but feeling like you couldn’t see the forest for the trees when in graduate school reminds me of my first steps in the theory wading pool, as well as the compaints of countless other students. I always felt like I was merely treading water, and doubting my own ability to understand things at a deeper, more contextual level.. Its always reassuring to see other academics admit (and laugh, I’m assuming) to their insecure follies of the past!

    You have a nice blog. It is full to the brim of decent content that holds one’s attention longed than it takes to click to another.

  12. Dorothy – so glad to find another blogbuddy who has struggled with Lacan. Yes, you have to do it, for some unknown reason! Derivative – thank you very much! And yes, I do like to laugh at my own shortcomings. Theory is fun if you play with it and disastrous if you take it too seriously!

  13. This was so helpful. Lacan is hard for me to truly comprehend and grasp. This is so interesting to me though especially having a nine month old. Thankyou for the much appreciated insight and explanation.

  14. Pingback: Lacan and Limbo: Playing Games with the Mirror Stage | Dialog Wheel

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