Lacan‘s reinterpretation of Freud, with the central focus on language, brought about a post-structuralist turn to psychoanalytic theory. In his paper titled Mirror Stage (1949), Lacan expounds the concept of the mirror stage that occurs between 6-18 months of a child’s development, when the child begins to draw rudimentary distinction between the self and the other, as it encounters its image in the mirror. Before this,.the child is from birth in the Real stage, driven by needs and lived in unity with the mother. With the Mirror Stage, the child attains the first realization of its bodily autonomy. Thus begins the lifelong process of identifying the self in terms of the other- man/woman, West/East, and so on.
The image reflected according to Lacan is the “Ideal I” – the stable and autonomous version which the child does not experience in itself and hence yearns to be the other. This quest, Lacan says, will never be fulfilled and may lead to anxiety, neurosis, and psychosis. The child also realizes that, prior to this stage, its body was in “bits and pieces” and realizes the danger of returning to that stage. The mirror stage also marks the beginning of a gradual transition from the Imaginary/pre-linguistic stage (where the child does not recognize the demarcation between itself and the objects in the world) and the symbolic stage of language acquisition, In the imaginary stage, the Self is a unified, coherent whole, not fragmented or mediated by differences; however, on the realization of the imminent presence of the Other, the Self is divided, and this marks the breakdown of the comforting imaginary condition, and it thrusts the child into the Symbolic order- the world of predefined social roles and gender differences, the world of subjects and objects, the world of language.
The mirror phase occurs roughly between the ages of six and 18 months and corresponds to Freud’s stage of primary narcissism. That is the stage of human development when the subject is in love with the image of themselves and their own bodies and which precedes the love of others. Between the ages of six and 18 months the infant begins to recognize his/her image in the mirror (this does not mean a literal mirror but rather any reflective surface, for example the mother’s face) and this is usually accompanied by pleasure. The child is fascinated with its image and tries to control and play with it. Although the child initially confuses its image with reality, he/she soon recognizes that the image has its own properties, finally accepting that the image is their own image – a reflection of themselves.
During the mirror stage, then, the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror, that his/her body has a total form. The infant can also govern the movements of this image through the movements of its own body and thus experiences pleasure. This sense of completeness and mastery, however, is in contrast to the child’s experience of its own body, over which it does not yet have full motor control. While the infant still feels his/her body to be in parts, as fragmented and not yet unified, it is the image that provides him/her with a sense of unification and wholeness. The mirror image, therefore, anticipates the mastery of the infant’s own body and stands in contrast to the feelings of fragmentation the infant experiences. What is important at this point is that the infant identifies with this mirror image. The image is him/herself. This identification is crucial, as without it – and without the anticipation of mastery that it establishes – the infant would never get to the stage of perceiving him/herself as a complete or whole being. At the same time, however, the image is alienating in the sense that it becomes confused with the self. The image actually comes to take the place of the self. Therefore, the sense of a unified self is acquired at the price of this self being an-other, that is, our mirror image. Lacan describes it like this:
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for all the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the infants entire mental development.
For Lacan, the ego emerges at this moment of alienation and fascination with one’s own image. The ego is both formed by and takes its form from the organizing and constituting properties of the image. The ego is the effect of images; it is, in short, an imaginary function. Lacan is arguing here against Ego psychology and its tendency to prioritize the ego over unconscious processes as well as to equate the ego with the self. Lacan insists that the ego is based on an illusory image of wholeness and mastery and it is the function of the ego to maintain this illusion of coherence and mastery. The function of the ego is, in other words, one of mis-recognition; of refusing to accept the truth of fragmentation and alienation.
According to Lacan, from the moment the image of unity is posited in opposition to the experience of fragmentation, the subject is established as a rival to itself. A conflict is produced between the infant’s fragmented sense of self and the imaginary autonomy out of which the ego is born. The same rivalry established between the subject and him/herself is also established in future relations between the subject and others. As Benvenuto and Kennedy put it, ‘the primary conflict between identification with, and primordial rivalry with, the other’s image, begins a dialectical process that links the ego to more complex social situations’ (1986: 58). To exist one has to be recognized by an-other. But this means that our image, which is equal to ourselves, is mediated by the gaze of the other. The other, then, becomes the guarantor of ourselves. We are at once dependent on the other as the guarantor of our own existence and a bitter rival to that same other.
Critics of Lacan’s mirror stage argue that he in fact has things completely the wrong way round. In order for the subject to identify with an image in the mirror and then to mis-recognize themselves, they must first have a sense of themselves as a self. If the Lacanian subject is an alienated subject then this presupposes a ‘non-alienated’ subject in the first instance, otherwise there is nothing that one can meaningfully be said to be alienated from. Hence, the idea of a primary lack or absence is based upon the presupposition of a primary presence or unity. Lack in this sense is secondary and not primary. Anthony Elliott argues that the very terms of Lacan’s mirror stage are all wrong: mirror reflection, lack and absence are not pre-existing phenomena but the work of the subject and the imaginary. Lacan’s use of the term alienation is rather different from that of his critics though. Through the mirror stage the infant imagines that it achieves mastery over its own body but in a place outside of itself. Alienation, in Lacan, is precisely this ‘lack of being’ through which the infant’s realization (in both senses of the term: forming a distinct concept in the mind and becoming real) lies in an-other place. In this sense, the subject is not alienated from something or from itself but rather alienation is constitutive of the subject – the subject is alienated in its very being