Lacan uses the term Gestalt to indicate the body-image. According to the psychology from which he takes it, it is a global figure quite different from its parts considered separately. It’s an auto-erotic, fragmented body held together by the mirror. He says of it that it is more constituting than constituted. [1] These terms were deciphered a long time ago by Jacques-Alain Miller. The constituting axis tends to be on the side of the symbolic and the constituted axis more on the side of the imaginary. Lacan’s topology of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary is not yet in place, and he is using other terms. The specular image in the constituting axis has a different function than in the constituted axis. In its constituting axis it is articulated to the ego ideal by a vertical (hierarchical) identification. This axis is symbolic where the image is linked to language. The constituted axis is imaginary linked by horizontal (imaginary) identifications. [2] Lacan in his early teaching refers to Freud’s diagram on p. 116 of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921).

The ego ideal situates the agency of the ego in a fictional direction, according to Lacan in 1949. [3] Something symbolic misleads something imaginary. It’s not just the imaginary that is deceptive, illusory. [4] The Ideal imparts to the ego a remarkable capacity to imagine the world other than it is. At another point in his teaching he introduces this symbolic deception as truth structured like a fiction, then still later as the semblant. His supposition of the symbolic as misleading sits uneasily next to the trust he shows in the symbolic as a guide for the treatment. In the early years of this teaching the principle was treatment by the symbolic. He remained, however, ambiguous about it.

Examined closely, Lacan has considered the symbolic as unavoidably alienating ever since the beginning of his psychoanalytical career. Alienation by identification with the ideal signifiers installs a scene structured by the symbolico-imaginary in which the subject is alienated from ex-sistence. Ex-sistence is a depositioning. The drives ex-sist to the scene. [5] The depositioned subject if not anterior to the decentred subject is going to emerge as the stronger theme in Lacan’s orientation. He doesn’t use the term repression for the drive but a topological term which puts the drive outside the scene but close to it. The ego in the scene imagines the drives other than they are in an act called fantasy which is in the said fictional direction. The mirror stage is a fantasy machine, generating the fantasy of a total body by which the subject understands that the previous phase was a fragmented one. The ego becomes a defence against another fantasy called the body-in-pieces. In the mirror stage these partial images are worked up into a fantasy indexed on i(a), the image of the little other which is the ego’s imaginary partner. The matheme has another interpretation in which i represents the above-mentioned Gestalt, and the (a) the auto-erotic parts held together in the image.

The symbolic and imaginary elements conspire to give reality a fictional consistency in which the real is hidden. For Lacan reality is grasped as the reality of discourses in which a social bond is established. The social bond through ideal identifications produces the homogeneity of a given community. Otherwise, reality has no intrinsic existence. The ego is neither a measurer nor a measure of reality precisely because it measures the world other than it is. The ego ideal-ego system as an operator of the reality principle is a bit of a laugh.

In a reference to Sartre and Levi-Strauss he puts forward for argument a first epoch which gives us the world and a second the scene. The mirror stage saddles the world with a scene and not with reality. [6] Lacan finds a binary there which he is going to elaborate a little: world/scene. The world is not the scene. The scene is the world of recognition but not the world. In this binary world/scene is hidden another existential binary, namely existence/essence. The scene provides us with essence and the world with ex-sistence. The scene is established in the dimension of historical time and cosmic time belongs to the world. [7]

We are alienated in the scene. What happens in the world with its cosmic time and the real? [8] The drives belong to the world and ex-sist to the scene. Are the drives repressed? It is a sort of repression that leads to a relation not given to the signifier when it is repressed, namely, that of ex-sistence. Repression happens in the scene, not in the world. If the drives ex-sist to the scene, do they have a chance to exist one day? [9] The world doesn’t consist only of the left overs that drop out of the scene. The procedure in the Lacanian orientation, if I have understood it, invites the subject to leave the scene for the world where it will ex-sist and to become a dupe of the real. It does not invite the drives into the scene. [10] Leaving the scene for the world could be another expression for the crossing of the fantasy. A passage from the world to the scene will rely on sublimation. This is, of course, psychoanalysis, and the scene is Oedipalised. The sexual relation is established in the Oedipus by the fantasy the subject makes of it. There is no sexual relation in the world. Drives and jouissance don’t make a sexual relation.

Why doesn’t Lacan centre the ego on the system perception-consciousness? (Ecrits, Eng. ed., p. 80) The answer is to be found in the scene. One finds a baby not so tickled by its mirror image and a mother persuading the little subject that the image belongs to him. In other words, the mother is structuring the image by adding signifiers to it. Lacan gives this function to the big Other. This function is successful when the baby turns towards its mother awaiting confirmation of its mirror image by a signifier. As has been said, she is persuading the infant that the image belongs to it. It’s the signifiers that are organising the subject’s visual field, not the ego. The specular relation finds its place, Lacan says, in the field of the Other where it is constituted in relation to the signifier. [11] The Other integrates desire into the visual field. We will find the ego’s centre in the function of méconnaissance, translated as misrecognition or as denial, which is the armature of all its defensive structures. [12] Fantasy is a méconnaissance of the world. There is, of course, a perceptual relation outside the field of the Other.

What does the system perception-consciousness have to do with recognition? The mirror stage is preceded by recognition. The subject recognises its image in a jubilatory mode and assumes it in a triumphant mode. In this picture of an infant casting hyperbolic gestures to a mirror and receiving them back, how is the observer to distinguish between recognition and identification? In 1946 it looks like recognition is a primitive given: the baby recognises the human face from the tenth day of life. [13] I am sure that this recognition is observable. One could suppose that a pure recognition of the image also involves a pure imaginary identification. Without the constituting desire of the Other to add signifiers, a pure imaginary identification is unstable. One has to consider language as a priori. [14]

Before the mirror stage the ego does not exist. According to Lacan, it has an onset on and around six months. The big Other is there ab initio as an operator. In the original 1949 paper the Other as discourse is weakly present as a symbolic matrix. What is operating on the side of the individual who at six months of age or earlier becomes active in the affair? Lacan is going to use the subject to operate the push to identification in the mirror stage rather than the Other who adds signifiers. He is already constructing the notion of the subject in the post war papers. A subjective solution is already to hand. In 1948 recognition implies subjectivity. [15] It’s out of a lack that a desire for recognition emerges, leading to the identification of the mirror stage. [16] The subject is a functor of identification, to use Jacques-Alain Miller’s term. There is a pull by the ego ideal as the ego’s unconscious coordinates and a push by the subject as functor of identification. The individual is pulled and pushed not into the world but into a scene.

Ego and subject have been distinct concepts in his work from the beginning. In some kind of analogy he says that the ego will only meet the subject asymptotically which is said of curves that approach straight lines but never touch. [17] There is no ego to recognise the image, and the subject recognises not the image but the signifier. The signifier organises the visual field. However, in 1955 the subject can be parasitized by the ego. He says the ego is never but half of the subject. [18] In other words, the subject is never completely transformed by imaginary and symbolic identifications. A non-identified subject becomes a signifier but not all of it. Transform it as much as you want by a signifier or an image and always half is left empty. There is always some subject that remains unidentified. Lacan expresses this by barring the signifier: $. A subject is supposed that is empty which is the lack in being. It’s no longer a Hegelian supposition, but the supposition of the signifier, indicated by the barred signifier. It puts us in a position to interpret his 1949 statement that language gives the subject a universal function. [19] The signifier gives the subject a universal function which is to become a signifier. The identification made by the subject is with the signifier of the ego ideal with the ideal signifiers in the speech of his parents. As noted, some of the subject always remains empty and continues as undetermined. Freud worked on a concept of splitting of the ego whilst Lacan’s subject is always a divided subject: on the one hand empty, on the other completed by a signifier.

Lacan at first discovered the push to identification in a biological crisis that he calls the specific prematuration of birth. This is nothing less than the motor dependency of the infant which makes it beholden to the image in anticipation of mastery. [20] It pushes the subject into making the identification typical of the mirror stage. However, Lacan gives notice in 1966 that he no longer subscribes to the notion of a biological crisis as an explanation. I am sure he abandoned it before 1966. It masks the cutting edge of another kind of function, he says, called the function of lack. Lack is the secret of the jubilant assumption of the specular image. [21] It could be an exaggeration to find this notion of lack in the 1949 paper: “. . . the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust accelerates from inadequacy to anticipation- and which for the subject caught in the allure of spatial identification machines one fantasy after the next from an image of a fragmented body to a form that we would call orthopaedic in its totality. . .” [22] Is there a concept of lack locked away in the term inadequacy and a concept of desire in the term anticipation? Lacan will eventually translate himself his manque-à-être into English as a subjective want-to-be. A lacking subject is supposed in the desire for recognition. A non-identified subject, undetermined, is seeking recognition in a scene. Recognition in the world is not to be had.

If you want to be of service to your analysand, Jacques-Alain Miller recommends that the analyst leave the analysand undetermined in a situation saturated with determination. I don’t remember where he said it. Lacan said it as well. He said it at least twice. Lagache provoked him into saying it. Lagache said that the child is a pole of expectations, projects and attributes. The situation is saturated with descriptions. Lacan tells us what this saturation is: they are the signifiers the subject is choking on. [23] Interpretations from the analyst that describe the subject merely make the saturation denser. On the contrary, in the orientation that Lacan thought analytical, the subject is left undetermined by eliminating the subject supposed to know. The subject is left undetermined when the analyst says “I don’t know”, however much the analyst is supposed to know something. [24] To leave the subject undetermined preserves as much emptiness as possible at any one time in the face of the symbolic-imaginary defence system, that is, in the face of the subject’s identifications. As the saturation of the subject’s situation is depleted in the procedure, a non-identified subject progressively emerges. The subject is constructed in the procedure, and therefore the way to destitution of the subject is to be sought in the procedure. Identifications are a defence system. The pressure of the drive constitutes a danger for the ego ideal. [25] It follows that it would be interesting for the procedure to find a way of weakening identifications. At the end of the psychoanalytical procedure Lacan calls this way the destitution of the subject.

Lacan thinks of identifications as contingent. Otherwise, there can be no depletion. In S3 he remarks that identifications are revokable. [26] When the identification is revoked, there is still a subject but certain qualities have been subtracted from the ego. It adds the logic of contingency to the concept of identification. The contingency of identifications makes the psychoanalytical procedure possible. Are identifications revocable in psychotic structure? Identification as a compensatory mechanism may very well be necessary in psychosis. Otherwise, the consequences of revoking an identification are catastrophic. This very subjective function as a push to identification has to be destituted at the end of the procedure. Beyond the procedure the subject revives without the same push to identification.

Richard Klein, Finsbury Park, London, 6/8/2009


About the author:

Richard Klein is a practising analyst living and working in London. The following papers issue from clinical experience, textual labour and his characteristic commitment to the transmission of psychoanalysis in the Lacanian orientation.


  • [1] Lacan, J., “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” (1949), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p.76.
  • [2] Lacan, J., “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”, (1949), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co. 2006, p.76.
  • [3] Idid., p. 76.
  • [4] Throughout the dozen years that follow Lacan will nevertheless emphasise the symbolic over the imaginary and the real. He is supposed to have called it the time of his linguistic delusion. It led to the analysis of the make-believe (semblant), foreshadowed mainly in Seminar VII.
  • [5] Lacan, J., “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation” (1960), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co, 2006, p. 554.
  • [6] The mirror stage involves two identifications, an imaginary and a symbolic one. The scene is taken as structured by the symbolico-imaginary.
  • [7] Ever since Lacan situates the desire of the analyst in the transfinite set (Autres ecrits, p. 249), it becomes necessary to mathematise time, for instance, historical time as potential infinity and what he is calling cosmic time here as actual infinity.
  • [8] Lacan, J., Le Seminaire, livre X, L’angoisse (1962-3), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2004, pp. 44,45.
  • [9] Lacan (1960), op. cit., 554.
  • [10] The world is also the place of earthquakes, tsunamis, mountains, seas, storms, that is, the place of weather which invites itself into the scene, and in the case of climate change will replace historical time with cosmic time.
  • [11] Lacan (1962-3), op.cit., p. 42.
  • [12] Lacan (1949), p. 80.
  • [13] Lacan, J., “Presentation on Psychical Causality” (1946), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p.148.
  • [14] Lacan, J., Television/A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, W.W. Norton & Co., p. 36.
  • [15] Lacan, J., “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis” (1948), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 91.
  • [16] The notion of the subject continues after Lacan has access to the theory of the signifier. The subject becomes a supposition.
  • [17] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 76.
  • [18] Lacan, J., “Variations on the Standard Treatment” (1955), op. cit., p. 287.
  • [19] Lacan (1949), p.76.
  • [20] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p.78.
  • [21] Lacan (1966), op.cit., pp.69, 70.
  • [22] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p.78.
  • [23] Lacan (1960), op. cit., p. 547.
  • [24] Lacan (1962-3), op.cit., p. 25.
  • [25] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 79.
  • [26] Lacan (1955-6), p.14.

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