How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
At some time between six and eighteen months, the baby sees its image, generally in a mirror, and realises that what it is seeing is somehow itself. This recognition causes great confusion and ‘libidinal dynamism’ (Lacan, 1977) as the pre-linguistic infant struggles with its first identity conflict.
With the boundary-formation of identity comes separation, and the image is perceived as distinct Other. Separation also creates a sense of loss and a lifelong desire to regain the jouissance of the connected wholeness.
The image seems to be perfect, an ‘imago’ (Lacan, 1949), an ‘ideal ego’ that is appealing, to be loved and emulated in an enduring narcissistic fantasy. The perfect other also creates envy and dislike and hence further confusion and tension between these polar opposites. It also may seem to be asking questions or making demands of the child who may wonder what it wants and what it will do.
An early sense of jubilation at recognizing its wholeness is followed by a fear that the infant will regress to its previous state of being in 'bits and pieces'. The mirror does not reflect feelings and 'lies' about the apparent independence of the image that the baby does not have.
This misrecognition or méconnaissance (Lacan, 1949) is compounded when, in taking the subject position of the image and looking back on its actual self, the baby contrasts what it sees with the ‘ego ideal’. This casts itself as imperfect and inferior, thus exaggerating the difference and cementing the trauma of imperfection and self-loathing and the desire to become the unattainable ideal (Leader and Groves, 2000).
The desire for the connected whole and the desire for individual perfection represent a tension between non-identity and identity that is perhaps related to Freud’s death and life drives.
Within the ‘imaginary order’ of this stage, the child continues to build its self image, oscillating between alien images and fragments of the real body. From surreal paranoia, the ego starts to emerge as an unconscious construction. Somewhat wittily, Lacan called this the ‘hommelette’ : the little man, made out of broken eggs. When a baby sees itself in a mirror, it both recognizes itself and misrecognizes itself. The image seems to be psychologically integrated and physically coordinated in a way that the baby does not feel.
Adults still feel uncomfortable about themselves as integrated and whole individuals. Self-images continue through their lives to cause narcissistic fascination and/or discomfort in that the image somehow does not look like 'me'.
The mirror phase was defined in 1936 by Jaques Lacan, a post-Freudian psychoanalyst, who explained how the imaginary misrecognition 'situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction.'
The mirror separates us from our selves. In order to recognize myself, I have to be separate from my self. Thus identity as a notion I can consider appears.
The mirror image is the basis of Lacan's 'ideal ego', which is a subsequent destination for striving. The 'ego-ideal' is where the subject, within the symbolic order, looks at themself from the position of the perfect ideal ego, consequently seeing one's life as imperfect, vain and useless. Narcissism is thus rooted in the adoration of the perfect image.
Althusser used the mirror principle to explain how ideology is used to reflect both the subject and others and how the mirror of ideology implant received social meaning in the imagined relationship between the person and their existence. The individual thus recognizes themself as an autonomous subject.
The more general notion of mirroring has been taken up by others, such as Winnicott, who saw mirroring occurring in the loving gaze of the mother. The gaze of the good-enough mother does not reflect her own defences but rather a confirmation of the varying moods that the baby is presenting to her.
Modern media utilizes the Lacanian fascination with the image, showing us pictures into which we are invited to project ourselves.
This has been criticized, for example in the lack of consideration of the internal processes that allow misrecognition to take place. For the infant to recognize itself in the mirror, it must already have a sense of self. The development of the self thus may be already well under way.
Lacan J. (1949). The mirror stage. in Identity: a reader, Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman (eds), London: Sage, 2000, pp 44-50
Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton
Leader, D. and Groves, J. (2000). Introducing Lacan, Cambridge, UK: Icon Books
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