The most intuitive of Lacan’s three categories, the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, RSI, is the imaginary. One grasps it immediately without reasoning. It is the pure consciousness of an image, of seeing myself see myself. It’s not just any image but a body image of good form that captivates the subject, and it creeps into meaning at the level of the signified. Lacan’s mirror stage covers the field that Freud calls narcissism. The mirror stage is a reworking of Freud’s 1914 paper on narcissism. Narcissism is a relation between two images, the specular image and the ego which is the image extracted from the specular one by an identification. For Freud this would be the relation between ego libido and object libido.[1] It bases the imaginary on a principle of symmetry. In that libido is also drive libido, Jacques-Alain Miller calls this imaginary the imaginarisation of enjoyment which is his first paradigm of enjoyment.

From the point of view of Freud’s first topology which distributes psychical life over the conscious (Cs.), the preconscious (Pcs.) and the unconscious (Ucs.), Lacan considers the conscious as the place of the imaginary, namely of the ego. It’s not a theory of the conscious mind as such. Lacan restricts the conscious in psychoanalysis to the place where I see myself seeing myself where consciousness is turned back on itself in the dual, imaginary relation. This sort of brute consciousness avoids the function of the gaze, according to Lacan.[2] After the second topology arrived, namely, ego, id and superego, the ego acquired a synthetic function. Notwithstanding, it already had one in the I see myself seeing myself which is the very definition of a unifying function.

Lacan attempts to construct a differential clinic, neurosis/psychosis, with the support of the mirror stage, but he can’t do it with the mirror alone. He needs a mechanism which he calls upon in 1946, namely méconnaissance systématique (systematic misidentification) about which more is to be said in these papers.[3] As for the specular image, there are two aspects to it, one of libidinal dynamism and one he calls connaissance paranoiaque (paranoiac knowledge). The structure of neurosis is based on libidinal dynamism, associated with repression of the signifier. In the structure of psychosis the dominant aspect is paranoid knowledge which is associated with systematic identification.

The specular image is known as the image of the little other or i(a). From the specular image a second image is derived by an imaginary identification called the ego. Both are narcissistic structures and therefore imaginary. The dual, imaginary relation is based on two symmetrical images.

(See diagram of Schema L, Ecrits, p. 40.)

Little a means little other (autre), the subject’s imaginary partner. As his teaching progresses, many more such indices are used and become known as mathemes. Some undergo a change of use. Little a is used for an object called object little a. The mathemes e or i(a) are then used for ego and the image of the other.[4] Little a in schema L is the ego’s imaginary partner. In this schema a‘ represents the other and a the ego. Little a taken as a drive-object refers us back to drive-libido, and one could take the matheme i(a) as the imaginarisation of enjoyment. In the early teaching it provides us with a notion of fantasy.

The ego is articulated to the ego ideal which is the signifier of the desire of the Other. Lacan indexes this articulation on Saussure’s sign: S/s, signifier over signified. The signifier of the ego ideal is found above the bar: I/s. The ego becomes the ego ideal’s meaning at the level of the signified. The ego as signified is a set of descriptions. The meaning reveals an ego aspiring to conform to the criteria laid down for it by the ego ideal- or, of course, rebelling. The ego ideal supports its own agenda by interrupting or supporting the symmetry at the level of the signified. The Ideal is constituted of signifiers taken from the speech of the parents and is, therefore, symbolic. Language is symbolic as are the elements of language, namely signifiers. Look at the lower stage of the graph, and you can see that the ego at e in its relation to its imaginary partner at i(a) are images in the circuit of the signified in the field of the Other:

(See graph of desire 2, Ecrits, p. 684)

The ego as narcissism is a unity which cannot exist from the beginning of life, according to Freud.[5] The mirror stage is established around the sixth month of life, according to some noted child psychologists of the time. It is established in opposition to auto-erotism, in opposition to disunity. It is a defensive structure, and this is one of its defences. Freud does not mention in his paper on narcissism that the ego is an effect of identification. It’s implied in what Freud calls a new psychical action, necessary to bring about the ego and to pass from auto-erotism to narcissism. It’s a one-step theory of development from disunity to unity. That the shadow of disunity falls over unity is a consequence. Unity is always in the shadow of disunity. There is no absolute success in overcoming the previous psychical phase. The ego as good form has the effect of a sense of self and of self-love. It is a described object, signified as much as it is promoted in the visual field. The erotism of this ‘auto’ gives us the idea that it’s a satisfaction that does not involve the self but rather a satisfaction in situ- in the body. It’s a satisfaction at the level of the real, of the drives. The ‘auto’ in auto-erotism also means that it is functioning autonomously. It is a deregulated erotism, functioning independently of a regulatory principle such as the pleasure principle. One could say that it’s an erotism that enciphers the death drive as well as any sexuality, being deregulated, as it is. Lacan calls it jouissance (enjoyment). With auto-erotism the three registers of Lacan’s topology are introduced: the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, or RSI. There is some real in auto-erotism, imaginary in narcissism, in the ego and signified. Language is a network of signifiers and is symbolic.

A figure from the field of the Other who is in charge of the infant, usually the mother but not necessarily, opposes the death drive and establishes the pleasure principle by adding signifiers. The addition of signifiers symbolises the real. However, not all the real is symbolisable. This leads Lacan to the hypothesis that language and some of the real are incompatible. In schizophrenia none of the real is symbolisable; in neurosis it’s the traumatic nucleus that is real, symbolisable to varying degrees. In paranoia the real is external as persecutory enjoyment. Before Lacan started to take up the notion of the real, the death drive was sometimes situated at the level of the imaginary, for instance narcissistic suicide, sometimes of the symbolic, and only much later does the death drive coincide with the real.

The state of the subject’s body in auto-erotism is fragmented. Lacan calls it the corps morcelé, the fragmented body. The nose is not yet in the centre of the face. It is a body based on turbulence of movement.[6] The body in the case of auto-erotism is neither a signifier nor an image. One supposes that it’s real: unregulated, outside the law which gradually becomes a residue that makes no sense, that is, an object (a). The drives possess turbulent movement and emerge in the body where they are satisfied in situ. They are satisfied at their source in the body. Satisfaction of enjoyment is of a kind that is most apt to tip over beyond what the subject demanded, being unregulated.[7] In these concepts, both Freudian and Lacanian, we cannot help but to consider the body as the first traumatic encounter.[8] Lacan would not be the first psychoanalyst to assert that.

He proposes the mirror stage for what Freud called the new psychical action. It was introduced in Marienbad at the International Congress of the IPA in 1936. The earliest accessible articles on the mirror stage are found in the post war papers of 1946, 1948 and 1949 collected in the Ecrits.[9] The mirror stage is the purveyor of imaginary identifications through which a body of good form is constructed and a sense of self. The fragments in auto-erotism are objects little (a) which if they become images are not of good, global form, but partial images, therefore not imaginary. The first concept of the object little (a) is as part object or partial image. These part objects though sometimes called objects (a) are not yet, in fact, the object little (a) as an organ, as left over enjoyment or as lost. The imaginary conceals the autoerotic little (a’s) much as the depressive position conceals the paranoid-schizoid position. One can think of the imaginary identification (global image, or while we are at it, whole object) as a defence against the real.

Lacan describes the behaviour of the infant isolated in front of the mirror.[10] One supposes that the infant recognises the specular image by the jubilant mimicry it evokes. In a second step a transformation takes place in the subject who triumphantly assumes the image. This second step constitutes the identification he calls imaginary. It’s difficult to distinguish between recognition and assumption (identification) by observation.[11] In this scene it seems that the identification takes place without the support of the big Other. If we become too addicted to the scene of the infant before the mirror, we might even mistake it for a spontaneous affair with no support from anyone, and conclude that the specular image is a species specific trigger of identification.[12]

The mirror stage appears at a moment when there is, in fact no established ego. There is perception but no ego. Hence Lacan doesn’t make the ego the principle of perception like Freud does.[13] Who or what, then, makes the identification with the imaginary partner if there is no ego? It’s the signifier that guides the subject to the image. The signifier rules perception. As much as the big Other is the place of signifiers producing distance from the subject’s imaginary partner, it also extends itself all the way into the purest moment of the specular relation.[14] That makes it difficult to distinguish the big Other from an imaginary function. However, in the post war papers there is no theory of the signifier and no notion of the big Other.

Without the support of the Other an unstable identification is produced. In the 1949 paper it is not just an imaginary identification that sets up a relation between the ego and its specular image. There is also a relation between the ego and ego ideal. It’s already been mentioned above that the latter is constructed out of the ideal signifiers in the speech of the agents of the big Other, namely the parents.[15] The big Other is not yet a concept. It is implicit in 1949 as the symbolic matrix,[16] which is associated with the ‘I’ function.[17] It is the symbolic agency of the ‘I’ ideal, the latter being a term rejected in a footnote.[18] He means ego ideal. The ego ideal operates from within the field of the big Other as the symbolic matrix. The Ideal acts as the ego’s unconscious coordinate.[19] The ego ideal is the point at which the subject’s desire is attached to the Other’s desire, and the ego aspires to this desire. Lacan’s attitude towards this relation hardened as he advanced in his teaching. In the expression “make my desire your desire” an insistent statement is added to psychical life such as “Thy will be done”, as Lacan puts it in Seminar XVI.[20] In other words, it’s a paternal ideal with religious connotations.

The little subject is not isolated and alone in its moment in the scene that the mirror gives it. It is in the arms of a parent, or of any agent supporting the function of the big Other. This big Other has an intimate relation with the little other in which the symbolic and the imaginary approach each other. Lacan speaks about this in the Ecrits: ‘. . . the gesture by which the child at the mirror turns towards the person who carries him and appeals with a look to this witness; the latter decants the child’s recognition of the image, by verifying it. . .’[21] In both Seminar X and Seminar XI you have this scene of a parent holding the child to the mirror who is awaiting a signifier from the parent that would verify the image. The subject needs the signifier to confirm the image as its own. This confirmation is equivalent to Freud’s libidinal investment. What about a child who doesn’t appeal to a witness to confirm the image for him? This turning towards the agent of the Other does not occur. Lacan drew a clinical conclusion about this non-occurrence. It would leave the subject totally captive by the image and dispossessed of his relation to the Other.[22] One has the testimony of mothers of autistic children where the mother did not feel needed by the infant to act as witness of the specular image for him.

When Lacan does have access to the theory of the signifier on which his period of the return to Freud is based, there seems to be a mutual attraction between signifier and image, an affinity between symbolic and imaginary. This will not always be the case.[23] In his period of the return to Freud which marks the beginning of his teaching, the function of the big Other is to add signifiers. In the subject’s historical relation to the big Other, it is not a question of development but of the addition of signifiers. The focus is not on a developmental psychology but on the addition of signifiers amongst which at the crossing of two desires, the subject’s and the Other’s, the ego ideal insists on renunciation and repression. The effect of the addition of signifiers is the subject’s life-long attempt to avoid enjoyment (jouissance), to keep his or her life on the side of pleasure. The signifier that integrates the image into the symbolic of language is the ego ideal that becomes the rootstock of secondary identifications.[24] The ego ideal is primary or symbolic which supports the imaginary identifications as secondary. In other words, the symbolic identification is identification in the full sense, to use Lacan’s expression. In the 1949 paper two types of identification are associated with the mirror stage: the symbolic ego ideal identifications which are the identificatory rootstock or identification in the full sense and the imaginary identifications.[25]

In the field of narcissism the ego is a body-image and not a natural body. The question deserves to be asked as to how much access the subject has to its natural body.[26] Lacan replies that the baby’s body is lost inside itself.[27] The mirror stage is a transparent means of constructing the body outside itself using the specular body of the little other as model. The little other is the ego’s partner in establishing the imaginary order. This imaginary body is then interiorised along with the identification with the ideal signifier but retains a capacity for exteriorisation. This capacity is called projection which is an imaginary mechanism. The imaginary identification is given its full value in the term projective identification. Narcissism proposes transparency to the subject in opposition to enigma.[28] This transparency is nothing but a fiction. In psychosis the identifications are flawed, and the subject remains in an enigmatic state as to its body- and much else which is not a fiction.

The mirror stage is made to account for more than just Freud’s concept of narcissism. With it he makes his first attempt to establish a differential clinic in psychoanalysis: neurosis/psychosis. Psychosis for Lacan was never schizophrenia but paranoia and paranoid states. This seems to be the issue when he discusses two dimensions of the mirror stage as libidinal dynamism and connaissance paranoiaque (paranoiac knowledge).[29] Under libidinal dynamism falls the construction of a body-image with the effect of a sense of self and of self-love limited by an ego ideal. It falls on the side of neurosis based on libidinal investments.[30]

With this new term he invented, connaissance paranoiaque, Lacan says he is discussing the genetic psychology of the ego: ‘. . . in my study of the phenomena typical of what I call the fertile moments of delusion. Carried out according to the phenomenological method that I am promoting here, this study led me to analyses from which my conception of the ego has progressively emerged; this progressive emergence was visible to my audiences at the lectures and classes that I gave over the years at conferences organised by the Evolution psychiatrique group, at the Medical School Clinic, and at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Although for my own reasons, those lectures and classes have remained unpublished, they nevertheless publicised my term “paranoiac knowledge” which was designed to hit home.’[31] Connaissance paranoiaque has been translated paranoid knowledge. In (psychoanalytical) French savoir always refers to unconscious knowledge. For Freud too the unconscious is knowledge. Connaissance paranoiaque is not unconscious knowledge; rather it is paranoid knowledge and conscious. Unconscious knowledge is supposed. One cannot say that for paranoiac knowledge. The paranoiac knows. He supposes nothing. In a paranoid psychosis the individual is addicted to the conscious.

Lacan borrows the term transitivism from the child psychologists Charlotte Bühler and Elsa Köhler. The term describes behaviour in the relation of the ego to its imaginary partner which gives the mirror stage its paranoid aspect. In a pure capture by the image of the little other transitivistic phenomena occur. It can be observed amongst children before the ego ideal is ensconced in their mental life, before symbolic integration is complete, when the big Other is still responsible for the behaviour of the child. When the Other is out of sight and mind of the child, the ego functions autonomously and transitivistically. The subject who sees the other fall cries. He may say he was hit by a child when, in fact, it was he who struck the other. Here it’s used to describe the aggressive rivalry that structures sibling relations. In sibling relations one experience that takes up a lot of the relation is being robbed of one’s desire. By attacking the other the subject attacks his own ego. It’s called narcissistic, suicidal aggression. In other words, Lacan in the post war papers makes the dual, imaginary relation the locus of the death drive or primary masochism, and he says it’s the fundamental structure of madness.[32] The self-referential phenomena of transitivism make up the matrix of the ego that is functioning autonomously outside the field of the ego ideal. It can be outside that field because a parent is temporarily missing, and the child takes himself to be free of the Other when the latter is absent. Autonomous functioning can also be the effect of a foreclosed ego ideal. Foreclosure has slipped into these papers in the guise of systematic misidentification.

In 1954 transitivism is the effect of what Lacan calls an unstable mirror between the child and its imaginary partners.[33] Paranoid phenomena are not repressed when the imaginary identifications are operating outside the domain of the ego ideal. Jacques-Alain Miller has remarked that symbolic integration of the ego into the domain of the Ideal is never complete. There will always be some autonomous functioning of the ego. He is borrowing the term ‘autonomous’ from ego psychology and giving it a clinical use. We can therefore speak about a paranoid matrix of the ego as much in the clinic of neuroses as that of psychoses- which Lacan does.

Lacan speaks of the analysis as a paranoia dirigée,[34] a controlled or guided paranoia. One can think of the autonomous matrix of the ego as a paranoid position. If a dual, imaginary relation is established in the procedure, transitivistic phenomena may appear. Lacan was an admirer of Melanie Klein. The analytical procedure would be a methodical paranoia. Lacan was an admirer of Melanie Klein. It didn’t last, and I have never come across much evidence that he uses in the procedure identifications that have paranoid effects such as projective identification. In the 1950s and thereafter there is an effort to devalue the imaginary in the procedure. The emphasis is on the symbolic.

Richard Klein, Finsbury Park, London


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] In that libido is also drive-libido, Jacques-Alain Miller calls the first paradigm of enjoyment the imaginarisation of enjoyment, ‘Paradigms of Enjoyment’, Lacanian inNk, Fall 2000. Narcissism when it was also the ego drives is a defence against the sexual drives.
  • [2] Lacan, J., The Seminar, book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London, 1977, p. 74.
  • [3] Lacan, J., ‘Presentation on Psychical Causality’ (1946), Ecrits, W. W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 135, where it is translated as systematic misrecognition.
  • [4] When the object little a is invented, by some happiness coincidence or not, one could say that in the matheme i(a), the image contains the seed of its own destruction.
  • [5] Freud (1914), SE XIV, p. 77.
  • [6] Lacan, J., “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” (1949), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 76. Auto-erotism and turbulent movement are injections of enjoyment into Lacan’s post war papers before he had the concept of jouissance (enjoyment).
  • [7] I use the term demand which is one element of what he will one day call the drive: $ <> D, when the subject gets more than it asked for.
  • [8] Lacan, J., Le Seminaire, livre X, L’angoisse (62-3), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2004, p. 140. In the 1960s the object little a became a major player in psychoanalysis and was considered to have a real status. The fragmented body of auto-erotism was said to be a disorder of little a‘s. The watershed towards his teaching after 1972 came when the object little (a) became a semblance.
  • [9] I have never read the 1936 Marienbad paper. I don’t even know if it still exists.
  • [10] He drew on the infant observations of Elsa Koehler, Charlotte Buehler and H. Wallon. Lacan added the psychoanalytical dimension by reintegrating the subjective relations into their observations (Ecrits, English Edition, p.91).
  • [11] Lacan, J., “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” (1949), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, pp. 75-6.
  • [12] We suppose from our clinical material that the identification does take place without much support from the big Other but with degrees of instability.
  • [13] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 80.
  • [14] Lacan, J., ‘Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation’ (58/60), W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 568.
  • [15] Freud (1914), SE XIV, p. 96.
  • [16] Lacan (1949) p. 76.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid., p. 81, n. 1.
  • [19] Lacan (58/60), op. cit., p. 567.
  • [20] Lacan., J., Le Seminaire, livre XVI, D’un Autre a l’autre (1968-9), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2006, p. 123.
  • [21] Lacan (58/60), op. cit., p. 568.
  • [22] Lacan (1962-3), op. cit., p. 142.
  • [23] In the theory of knots RSI represent rings which are independent from each other and come to be knotted.
  • [24] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 76.
  • [25] The dominance of the symbolic is shown here. The treatment is also by the symbolic in the period of the return to Freud. Before one makes the systematising of interpretations the principle of treatment by the symbolic, one should ask oneself by how much treatment by the symbolic entails an ego ideal.
  • [26] Lacan, J., “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation” (1960), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 566.
  • [27] Ibid., p.566.
  • [28] Lacan keeps on saying that the psychoanalytical interpretation can only be enigmatic. Here is one reason for it.
  • [29] Lacan (1949), p. 76. ‘Paranoiac’ is an adjective derived from paranoia which is a form of psychosis. ‘Paranoid’ is also an adjective, also derived from paranoia, but does not necessarily indicate the presence of a psychosis.
  • [30] Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Paradigms of Jouissance’, Lacanian Ink, no. 17, 2000. In this paper the dimension of the mirror stage as libidinal dynamism is also the first paradigm of libido. Enjoyment as imaginary translates Freud’s narcissistic libido.
  • [31] Lacan, J., “Presentation on Psychical Causality” (1946), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co. , 2006, p. 147.
  • [32] Ibid., pp. 152, 153.
  • [33] Lacan, J., The Seminar, book I, Freud’s Papers on Technique (1953-4), Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 169.
  • [34] Lacan, J., “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis” (1948), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 89.

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