The mirror stage, or the birth of subjectivity

In Lacanian circles, the 'mirror stage' is regarded as nothing less than marking a fundamental turning point, a radical change, in the psychical development of the human infant. For the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, it is between six and 18 months that the infant is effectively given to choose between accepting to receive something from outside – an image – or refuse it, and bear the potentially devastating consequences his rejection will likely wreck upon his life.

What is at stake in the mirror stage is this quite precise moment early in his life when the infant becomes a 'subject'. Put differently, this immediate experience with a mirror stages a psychical operation that will make him a 'subject' to an 'other'. This other will eventually become so significant in his life as to be spelt with a capital O – the Other. One can see this change in the infant when he quite suddenly shows this unique individuality, character and personality about him. It will also be a time when the infant begins to feel quite estranged from himself as if something in him had been irretrievably lost which he will never cease to try to re-find.

So what is this mirror stage and what are its implications?

The mirror stage bears witness to the birth of the structure of subjectivity in human beings. Having constructed his concept from various scientific findings, Lacan posits that it is between the age of six and 18 months that the infant is suddenly caught by an image of himself in a mirror. One of his parents, most probably the mother, assures him that the reflection he sees in the mirror is indeed himself. The mirror stage thus brings together three elements: the baby (one) who captures an image (two) of himself; standing next to him a supremely omnipotent other (three) – his (m)other – who 'ratifies' this experience; 'You are it!', the mother proclaims to a jubilant baby.

It is crucial to understand what is at stake in this experience of the mirror stage. Prior to catching himself in the mirror at the same time as his mother telling him the specular reflection he sees in the mirror is himself, it was in no way possible for the infant to make sense of his bodily experience. Indeed, before this we cannot speak of any of the infant's lived experiences as being 'subjective', for there simply was, until then that is, no subject to speak of. It is not until he recognises himself in a mirror while at the same time hearing his mother tell him it is John that he can later say 'I feel anxious', 'I am happy', 'I am John, and I enjoy strawberry cakes', etc. It is a well-known fact that when he begins to speak the infant doesn't immediately refer to himself using the personal pronoun 'I', but would instead utter 'hungry!' or 'sleepy!'.

It may be argued that the actual act of telling her baby that it is indeed John that he is looking at in the mirror is essentially equivalent to the mother somehow 'mapping' an image around him. This image will not only help him identify with something the other shall thenceforward recognise, it will also have the critical function of protecting him. Indeed, prior to the mirror stage taking place, the infant experiences his body as a fragmented and uncoordinated bundle of disjointed parts, threatening him with disintegration. As adults it is easy to be brought back to this experience of anxiety. Think of those situations when it has become difficult to make sense of things concerning ourselves. Those popular expressions such as 'going to pieces' or 'get yourself together' point directly to the mirror stage.

The image of himself that the baby encounters in the mirror as he submits to the mother's idea of him is understood to be forming the basis of his 'ego'. In his work on the 'Ego and the Id', Freud suggests that the ego is in this instance a 'surface' – in fact, the projection of a surface – which serves as an interface between the infant, on the one hand – understood here primarily as only a living organism traversed by various currents of energy – and reality on the other. The ego can be compared to an onion skin, or a protective envelop where consciousness is allowed to operate and organise his experience of reality. It is via his ego that the subject can exert mastery over himself and the world. The ego, viewed as an image applied to the baby by his mother during the mirror stage, ultimately creates a subject. Both entities are formed simultaneously during this unique psychical process. As it turns out, a torus in three dimensions possesses a topological structure similar to the structure of a human subject.

It may help us understand the structure of a subject if indeed we think of a torus whose surface reflects what the mother has projected onto it during the mirror stage. A torus possesses two centres (a and b) around which its surface revolves. Centre (a), if empty, can nonetheless be somewhat circumscribed – it is a centre which would cause a person to feel driven, for instance, by financial success and winning at a competition. It is a point which coincides with the desire of the (m)Other and is in this instance reminiscent of the image that was first applied onto him by his mother in the mirror stage: 'My mother used to joke I looked like my uncle, perhaps this is why I seem to want to behave just like him'.

The other central hole (b) is something the subject, although circling it, cannot topologically know anything about. This centre stands outside the structure entirely, yet also very much determines it; it may be regarded as what the infant has been forced to give up during the mirror stage. This empty hole may also remind us of the philosophical current of existentialism so popular in the 1960's.

It is part of this short introduction to emphasise the crucial distinction that exists between the subject and the ego during the mirror stage. The ego serves to dress up the subject as a fictional character whose destiny will include playing a particular role in life – but this character is not the subject, only its mask or representation.

Next, a subject only exists in relation to a separate object, in our case the ego. Assuming it was successfully produced in the mirror stage the subject shifts constantly in a metonymic motion around the centre of something forever lost (see my short introduction on Metonymies and Metaphors). The ego, on the other hand, is an object which is, by nature, static and fixed. The reader will remember that it was the very unchanging nature of this image, which his mother attached to him in the mirror, that afforded the infant with this much-needed stability and consistency he needed to survive a chaotic world.

Having arrived here, we may not blame the reader if he or she then asks 'very well then, so what is a subject?'. Could it be that perhaps the subject may itself be a question?

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London, E1 7NF

Written by Stephane Preteux

London, E1 7NF

Stephane Preteux is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working in private practice in London. He has a degree in Applied Mathematics from Nanterre University (Paris X) and a Master of Science in Psychotherapy from Roehampton University (London). He is an Accredited Member of the British Association of Psychotherapist and Counsellors (MBACP)

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