Lacan’s Mirror Stage Theory: Identity and Sacrifice

In his paper on narcissism, Freud suggests that the narcissistic ego is a reflection of the erotogenic surface of the body. Instead of being cathected outwards towards exterior objects, which is the typical behavior of the ego operating under the influence of the pleasure principle, the narcissistic ego’s libidinal energy is turned inwards and takes parts of the subject’s own image or body as an object. Whereas it is typical of the ego to be invested in objects outside of itself, the narcissistic ego takes the person’s own self as an object of desire. Hence the ego is correlative to the areas of the body that are invested with sexual energy, the erotogenic zones; the ego is a projection of the surface of the body. We will see how this has implications for the formation of sexual differences between men and women. If the ego, which encompasses consciousness, is a projection of the body’s erotogenic surface, then we can already begin to see how the phallus, to the chagrin of feminists, becomes the main signifier for the ego that will shape and direct it. How does this happen, and to what extent is this model of the ego normative to human experience? Lacan’s mirror stage theory is an attempt to explain the origins of this narcissistic ego. (Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with Lacan, I’m merely communicating his theory)

Lacan argues that the ego is a social construction, that it is a result of our interaction with others. The ego does not come biologically pre-conditioned, it is based on an “‘organic insufficiency’, which the child attempts to fill by means of an identification with the image of an other” (Grosz, 33). Whereas animals rely on their instincts for survival, humans rely on social organization, language and laws. the necessities of language and social order for survival are preconditions of the ego. As a theory that seeks the origin of the ego, Lacan traces its etiology back to the infantile stage and analyzes the child’s experience. When the infant is first born, it is without any privileged point of bodily reference, meaning that each separate body part operates apart from the rest; there has yet to be a unified body, what exists is an aggregate of uncorrelated parts. The infant is incapable of controlling its bodily movements; its motor functions are limited and all it can do is helplessly flail its body around.

Its body is an uncoordinated aggregate, a series of parts, zones, organs, sensations, needs, and impulses rather than an integrated totality. Each part strives for its own satisfaction with no concern for the body as a whole. It has no experience of corporeal or psychical unity or of occupying a stable position within a corporeally delimited space (Grosz, 33-4).

At this infantile stage the child has yet to distinguish between itself and the world. It struggles with understanding and differentiating between the strange objects that it perceives. It perceives random shapes and colors but it does not know them as colors or shapes because it has yet to develop language with which to formulate them as such; the child has yet to identify these phenomena with a symbolic order.[1] As an infant, the child is bombarded with stimuli that it cannot make sense of. At this stage, the child is still one with the mother; its existence is still rather womb-like of an experience, attached and undifferentiated.

It isn’t until the child experiences the absence of the mother that it begins to develop an understanding of there being an outside world that it exists within and that operates independent of itself. In the beginning the infant perceives that it is at the mercy of the mother for survival, subsistence and pleasure. The mother, who is the first ‘other’ which we identify with as an infant, is that who we are dependent on. The further this dependence is sustained as the infant develops, the more the infant is overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and agitation at its limited motor abilities to fulfill its own desires, desires that aren’t being understood by the m/other precisely due the infant’s simultaneous lack of language ability. This frustration is manifest in crying and random fits of seeming rage, but is assuaged as the infant begins to forsake the project of communicating itself through its own language of baby talk, and when the infant begins to adopt the m/other’s language. This is when identity formation begins, when the infant starts to appropriate a symbolic order, a system of language, in order to make sense of the queer and strange world into which it is born, into which it is forcefully subjected without a say. Hence there is no such thing as an authentic personal identity, for whatever identity we have is always imposed upon us by the prevailing symbolic order, which is of course inclusive of language, culture, art, media, and so on. In this way one can say that identity is always a social construction.

We are always in the mode of being written over by the language of others, of being engendered by culture, of passively appropriating a prevailing symbolic order- the Lacanian ‘law of the father.’ Limited motor functions forces the child to identify itself visually with a disembodied mirror image, marking a decisive break from the mother.[2] And yet, in the beginning, the infant is one with/in its m/other, within an other. In a womb-space without reference to language or structures, a space of disorientation and fluidity, indeed, a queer space. How does this displacement from mother to father occur? One is born within an other; one is born of the m/other. In the beginning, we are two, never one. From the womb to ‘pre-Oedipal’ infancy our connection and dependence on the mother is a ‘matter’ of life and death. We have no need of a language yet because we have no need for identity, for there has yet to exist concepts of self and other. The infant and m/other are ‘two,’ but as two they are ‘one’ insofar as their bodies are adapted to one another (think how the mother’s physiology changes during pregnancy, how she breathes for the child) in a reciprocal relation, one that is beyond economy (Greek- oikenomos).

However, this symbiotic relation is not to last. The infant turns against the m/other, the first other that nurtures and births it into existence. This occurrence is a sort of primary claustrophobia. The love of the m/other becomes too suffocating. The infant begins to realize it has motor functions and can do the things the mother does. We desire escape from the womb and detachment from her breast. We desire independence and identity, separation from the mother in order to make sense of the world around us, to become self-sufficient, to attain self-identity, to carve out our own autonomous space independent from her. But does this connection with the m/other necessarily be severed? By the father, by social systems of patriarchal law and language?

One could equally, however, see the child’s manifest resistance to weaning as a symptom of the trauma occasioned by the final break in material contact with the inside of the mother’s body: rupture of the fetal membranes, cutting of the umbilical cord, denial of the breast. A series of breaks with all that might be represented as the material causes of the child’s body.[3]

Irigaray brings to our attention the problem of material origin and its lack of representation in psychoanalytic language; a rupture between mind and body, that will henceforth dictate the primacy of the gaze and the visual over the tactile and material. Separating itself from the mother, the child begins to identify with the father, and yet the child is never able to fully negate its connection to its material origins, “from which one must eternally separate and be separated but to which one must eternally return and refer back.”[4] For Lacan, the desire for an identity necessitates the negation of one’s primordial connection with the m/other and from one’s body. It is what constitutes alienation in language and estrangement from one’s bodily existence, and yet, it is simultaneously the condition upon which one can become a subject. For Irigaray, this shows how identity comes to be based upon the sacrifice of the mother, of woman’s body.

[1] Which is to say that objects, in part, take on meaning when we are able to understand them symbolically. E.g. a cup can symbolize concepts such as drink, thirst, water, etc., or better for our purposes here, a mother can symbolize nourishment, warmth, but also absence and restriction.

[2] Lacan, Ecrits., p.6.

[3] SP., p.40.

[4] Ibid., p. 40.