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.