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…
I can see why this has attractions for all sorts of people and all sorts of reasons. Feminists might want to analyze the link between body and identity. Philosophers now have an account of representation and language. Psychoanalysts of course have an insight into the formation of the subject.
The idea of the gap that is interposed between or within ourselves (alienation) is fascinating if you take from that the need to restore or undo it. I suppose theologians could say that it is an alienation from God and that this stage is if not original sin, then personal sin and the loss of innocence.
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