The Mirror Stage

Central to Lacanian psychoanalysis is the celebrated mirror stage. Lacan argues that a child's ego only begins to emerge in the ages between six months and eighteen months, when the child first sees its own reflection in a mirror. This experience is illusory, according to Lacan, because the child's actual experience of its own body is never that of a clearly delineated whole in the child's full control. Lacan's observations on the so-called mirror stage relied heavily upon the earlier work of the American psychologist and philosopher James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934).

Desire emerges from the perceived distance between the actual or lived experience of the child's own body and the reflection it first sees in the mirror. The child envies the perfection of the mirror image or the mirroring response of its parents, says Lacan, and this lack, or manque, is permanent because there will always be a gap or existential distance between the subjective experience of the body and the complete image in the mirror, or the apparent wholeness of others.

Desire begins at the mirror stage in the psychic development of the young child. The apparent completeness of the reflected image gives the otherwise helpless child a sense of mastery over its own body, but this sense of self-mastery is as illusory as it is frustrating. Lacan urged his fellow psychoanalysts to reassess their focus on the patient's ego and turn their attention back to the unconscious because of what he termed "the falsifying character of the ego." Lacan argued that psychoanalysis should "return to Freud" and abandon its fascination with the ultimately untrustworthy ego of the patient.

Lacan believed that his theory of the "mirror stage" answered two fundamental questions raised by Sigmund Freud's 1914 essay, "On Narcissism": What "psychical action" takes place to bring the ego into being? If one is not a narcissist from the earliest stages of life, what causes narcissism to emerge? According to Lacan, the mechanism of the mirror stage answers both of these questions.

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Do Not Panic

Do Not Panic

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