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The mirror stage was the subject of Jacques Lacan's first official contribution to psychoanalytic theory (Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad in 1936). He described it in "The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience", the first of his Écrits. In the early fifties, he no longer considers it as a moment in the life of the infant, but as representing a permanent structure of subjectivity, the paradigm of the Imaginary order: it is a phase in which the subject is permanently caught and captivated by his own image.
"the mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image" (Some reflections on the Ego).
As he further develops the concept, the stress falls less on its historical value and ever more on its structural value. "Historical value" refers to the mental development of the child and "structural value" to the libidinal relationship with the body-image (Dylan Evans - An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis). In his fourth Seminar, La relation d'objet, Lacan states that "the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship". The dual relationship (relation duelle) refers not only to the relation between the Ego and the body, which is always characterized by illusions of similarity and reciprocity, but also to the relation between the Imaginary and the Real. The visual identity given from the mirror supplies imaginary "wholeness" to the experience of a fragmentary real.
The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego being the result of identifying with one's own specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination, however, they can recognize themselves in the mirror before attaining control over their bodily movements. The child sees their image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with their own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens them with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego. (Dylan Evans, op.cit) The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery. (Écrits, "The Mirror Stage") Yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. (La relation d'objet) This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.
The mirror stage shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding - Lacan's term "méconnaissance" implies a false recognition - and the place where the subject becomes alienated from himself: the process by which the ego is formed in the Mirror Stage is at the same time the institution of alienation from the symbolic determination of being. In this sense méconnaissance is an imaginary misrecognition of a symbolic knowledge that the subject possesses somewhere. It must be emphasized again that the Mirror Stage introduces the subject into the Imaginary order.
The Mirror Stage has also a significant symbolic dimension. The Symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying the infant: the moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head toward this adult who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image. (Tenth Seminar, "L'angoisse", 1962-1963)
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