French psychoanalyst who in 1950’s onwards began developing his theories. Brings together
Freud’s ideas with structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic theory.
Freud’s aim in psychoanalysis was to uncover aspects of the unconscious and bring it into the
realm of consciousness in order to understand impact of id on ego and cure any neuroses
emerging from that: “Where id was, there shall ego be.” For Lacan this aim of giving the ego
control over the id or having the conscious “I” replace the unconscious is impossible. According
to Lacan, the ego or “I” is only an illusion, a product of the unconscious itself. Thus, for Lacan
the unconscious is “the nucleus of our being”.
Ego does not have power to control according to Lacan.
Freud’s tripartite model of the mind – id, ego, superego – charts how the demands of the id are
repressed by the injunctions of the superego and a child becomes a civilized, well-socialized
and productive ego-controlled self. Lacan, on the other hand, has no such faith in the ego. He
argues that this sense of a self that is rational and in control is an illusion. His essay on the
Mirror Stage discusses how an infant gets the illusion of what we know as a “self”.
Before the Mirror Stage
The infant starts out without any sense of an individual or coherent identity. An infant will play
with or suck upon parts of its own body – its fist or toes – with as much enthusiasm as an
external object such as a bottle or a breast or a toy. In this baby’s world there is no difference
between self and other, between itself and the mother. There is no consciousness of anything
Need is for concrete things: the infant needs milk when it is hungry; needs to be changed when
it is wet and uncomfortable; needs to be held or hugged when it needs warmth and safety. The infant driven by pure need does not distinguish between itself and the objects that meet its
needs. There is no recognition that the thumb it is sucking is its own or that the breast is a part
of another person. There is only NEED and the satisfaction of those needs.
This phase Lacan terms the realm of the REAL: In the Real, there is no consciousness of
separation between I and you, subject and object, self and other, infant and mother. The Real
as a psychic realm is a world of undifferentiated wholeness, a world without boundaries, a world
of completeness and fullness where there are only needs and satisfaction of those needs.
Complete “happiness” (in adult terms, not in infant terms who is nothing yet but a bundle driven
by instinctive need) or satisfaction is possible in the realm of the Real.
“Growing up” means moving from this world of primal wholeness and unity: the infant must
separate from its mother, realize that the world is not just a flux without differences but a world
inhabited by all kinds of ‘others’. Thus at the root of an infant’s growth into ‘functional human
being in civilized society’ lies a breaking up of this original sense of fullness and wholeness; a
primal LOSS wherein the sense of a non-differentiated completeness must give way to
Between the ages of 6 to 18 months the infant begins to shift from the wholeness of the Real to
a consciousness of a difference between its body and the world around. With this
consciousness, the infant shifts from having only Need to have DEMANDS. With the idea of
separation, comes the sense of anxiety, the awareness of Loss or LACK that destroys the
earlier sense of undifferentiated fullness. Demands are, in that sense, dependent upon the
dawning awareness that the infant is indeed separate from its mother, and that other things exist
in the world apart from it. The infant’s Demand then is a demand for that sense of complete
satisfaction and wholeness now lost. This LOSS is of course fundamental to the process of
individuation and separation that is needed for “normal” growth into adulthood.
This is when Lacan’s MIRROR STAGE happens. Mirror stage is best understood as part
metaphorical, part real explanation of how the ego or “I” or our sense of “self” is created.
At this age – between 6 and 18 months – the baby or child hasn’t yet mastered its own body; it
doesn’t have control over its own movements, and it doesn’t have a sense of its body as a
whole. At this time, experiencing its body as fragmented, the child sees its image in the mirror. This is for the child an “aha” moment. It looks at the mirror and thinks: that is ‘me’! But that is
not true. It is not “me” in the mirror but an image. The fundamental act of defining a “self” is
thus based on a MISRECOGNITION.
Lacan: “The mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term:
namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image.”
The infant is experiencing its body as fragmented but clearly an entity separate from others.
The mirror reflection, however, offers a total image, a whole person. The false identification of
the self is “orthopedic vision of its totality” – a kind of prosthetic self, a crutch, a corrective tool
that helps the child overcome its sense of lack of coordination, control, and wholeness.
Contrast between image as whole and body as fragmented parts that are not controlled
Lacan: “The mirror stage is a drama where the internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to
anticipation and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial
identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a
form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armor of an
alienating identity which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental
Some of ideal image recognizable as self, but what we think of as “I” is different
Completely authentic “I” impossible – how others see us I inextricably bound up in “I”
When identifying self, always relating to other things
Self cannot exist in isolation
This image in the mirror that the child takes as its “self” is called the IMAGO by Lacan. This
Imago creates the ego, the “I” but is always ultimately a fantasy, a self formed by identification
with an external image. Lacan: The mirror stage “situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination in a
If the phase of Need is the REAL, this phase of Demand with its mirror stage, ruled by the
fantasy self called the Imago is termed by Lacan as the realm of the IMAGINARY.
Just as there will always be a gap between the whole mirror image the infant misrecognizes as
itself and its actual experience of a fragmented, imperfect body; so too our lives are marked by
that gap (in clinical terminology) the “ideal ego” and our sense of self. We internalize the “ideal
ego” and build our “I”dentity based on it. We imagine a self that has no lack, no loss, no
absence or sense of incompleteness. This self is a fiction. It is an illusion of mastery.
Lacan: The relation of the image to the body: “The total form of the body by which the subject
anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as a Gestalt, that is to
say in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which
it appears to him above all a contrasting size…that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in
contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him.”
After the Imaginary phase, in which there is a misrecognition of the Imago for the self, and a
concealment of the Lack or Loss implicit in the separation from the mother, the break down of
primal wholeness, there comes the realm of the Symbolic: the child begins to learn language
(though the Imaginary never disappears because it is the basic phase of ego-formation and
coexists with the Symbolic).
The Symbolic is the realm of Language.
The Symbolic Realm
The Real: Need and satisfaction; no consciousness of an “I” but experience of fullness and
wholeness; primal unity of mother and infant, no dist