Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”
Alan Sheridan, tr. Ecrits, A Selection (1949), pp. 1-7
Before engaging the content of Lacan’s argument, I must engage its form. Although I find some admirable qualities in his writing (for example, his extensive and illustrative use of biological and mathematical vocabulary), I take issue with its general structure. I’ve heard it said that Lacan intentionally made his writing vague and loosely structured so that it would resemble the subject about which he wrote: the human mind. A lovely idea, to be sure, but in execution it becomes at best tedious and at worst outright frustrating for the nonspecialist. The loosely organized structure of the excerpt combined with its highly specialized psychological vocabulary quickly made clear either that Lacan didn’t care about the widespread dissemination of his ideas or that he assumed that others would take care of that. While others, have, in fact, taken up Lacan’s cause and presented his ideas in vastly more comprehensible terms, in my mind, Lacan nevertheless does himself a great disservice in writing for such a narrow audience. As a new reader of his work, I frequently felt lost trying to understand what he was saying; even after reading a quite helpful textbook summary of his ideas and after class lecture and discussion, a rereading of the selection proved only marginally less maddening. To be fair, this may be as much the fault of the editors of the anthology for making a poor selection. But, in any case, I believe that explanatory writing should be at its clearest when discussing complex, unclear thoughts; on this point, Lacan and I may have to respectfully disagree.
As to the content of the excerpt, I see the destabilization of the liberal humanist subject as Lacan’s most valuable contribution, both to general knowledge and to the field of specifically literary theory. In all honesty, I’m not sure that I understand all the finer points of his argument enough to critique them, but what follows is my best attempt.
Lacan begins with a description of the mirror stage, which takes place in infants anywhere between the ages of six and eighteen months. Lacan calls the transformational effects of this stage as “an ontological structure of the human world” (190). This stage, wherein the infant sees his own reflection in the mirror, consists of the transitional stage of the formation of the “I… before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (190). Lacan goes on to note that “this form [the Ideal-I of the mirror stage] situates the agency of the ego… in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone.”
N. B. I know that you wanted me to adopt a more formal, “academic critiquing academic” tone in these responses, and I tried to do that as best I could here. However, in all honesty, I still don’t understand Lacan’s writing (I think I understand his general concepts as outlined in Tyson and in class lectures) nearly well enough to feel comfortable really engaging with it. In fact, I would love to sit down and discuss the excerpt with you at some point (or hear your thoughts on it) since, after a great deal of effort, I’m still largely left scratching my head and saying, “I don’t get it.”