Lacan uses the term Gestalt to indicate the body-image. [1] According to the psychology from which he takes it, it is a global figure quite different from its parts considered separately. When Lacan considers these parts separately, it’s called corps morcelé, an auto-erotic, fragmented body held together by the mirror, that is, by specular identifications. He says on every page that the identifications associated with the mirror alienate the subject. What do they alienate it from? They alienate it from jouissance, enjoyment. Alienation is defence by identification against a traumatic encounter with, in this instance, one’s own body, the auto-erotic body which is a real body and not a body-image.

He says of the Gestalt that it is more constituting than constituted. [2] These terms were deciphered a long time ago by Jacques-Alain Miller. The constituting axis is more on the side of the symbolic and the constituted axis more on the side of the imaginary- as I have loosely understood it. 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. The constituted axis is imaginary linked by horizontal (imaginary) identifications to other partners. [3] The subject is alienated in both these axes of the specular image. The two identifications associated with the mirror stage occur in the context of the Oedipus complex and establish neurotic structure. In other words, the Oedipus is alienating. The Oedipus turns out to be a defensive structure which will be confirmed at several points in our discourse.

The ego ideal situates the agency of the ego in a fictional direction. [4] Something symbolic misleads something imaginary. It’s not just the imaginary that is deceptive, illusory. [5] Let’s try to translate ‘fictional direction’ in another way- maybe an existential way: the (symbolic) Ideal imparts to the (imaginary) ego a remarkable capacity to imagine the world other than it is. The symbolico-imaginary complex is defensive: it imagines the drives other than they are. This symbolic deception undergoes a persistent elaboration across Lacan’s teaching from truth structured like a fiction to the mi-dit (statements that reveal half the truth), to the sembIant (make-believe or semblance) until we arrive at la vérité menteuse (lying truth). The symbolic as misleading sits uneasily next to the trust Lacan shows in the symbolic in his early teaching as a guide for the treatment, as treatment by the symbolic. Treatment by the symbolic amounts to treatment by fiction, were it not for the transference which says nothing can be killed in absentia, in effigie. Still a fiction then! Treatment by the symbolic uses the same deceptive signifiers as the analysand, as anyone else.

The pacifying function of the ego ideal is bound up since the dawn of history with the imago of the father. [6] The imago of the father of 1948 becomes from 1953 the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father whose function is to link Freud’s Oedipal myth with the myth of Totem and Taboo. This is the signifier which supports the ego ideal identification. It transforms the subject’s relations to its imaginary partners in the sense of overcoming the early transitivistic phenomena. Otherwise, he also suggests that these phenomena are displaced, not overcome, to the matrix of the ego, emphasising instead overvaluation and Verliebtheit which become effects in the fictional direction. Verliebtheit is the love of the Freudian doctrine, namely, narcissistic love.

The imago must refer to Freud’s ethnographic Father who has a function in bringing about an identification that closes a psychical cycle. [7] In 1946 the transitivistic phase is closed. The ego ideal is established as the result of an identification that is psychical causality itself. [8] The signifier of Freud’s ethnographic Father is psychical causality itself, one could say the prime mover, which brings about a function, that of the ego ideal, allowing the subject to transcend a previous psychical phase, or allowing him to defend against a previous psychical phase. We could say that on the basis of the ethnographic Father an original social bond is established. In the previous phase the imaginary partner is an external object, and the subject’s relation to it has transitivistic effects. The subject has no social bond to the little other of transitivism. Something is formed as the matrix of the ego and functioning autonomously outside the field of the Ideal. In the postwar papers Lacan situates the death drive in that dimension of the mirror stage called connaissance paranoiaque. He calls it narcissistic, suicidal aggression. [9] By striking the little other, the self is struck. [10]

Psychical causality was the topic not of a psychoanalytical conference but of a psychiatric conference in 1946 in which Lacan opposed Henri Ey’s organicism with psychical causality. [11] Psychical causality indicates what is usually called in psychiatry aetiology, for instance, of psychosis, of neurosis. Freud needed the ethnographic Father to situate the Oedipus. This gives psychical causality another sense besides aetiology: it causes structure. The totem as the animal surrogate of the father introducing the religious phase was a done deal for Lacan. The signifier that is psychical causality itself is the cause of psychical structure. [12] The concept of structure is not yet manifest. Otherwise, it would have been structure to be placed in opposition to organicism. The psychical causality of psychosis would be the absence of this structuring identification which is psychical causality itself. The signifier of the Name-of-the-Father is present in neurosis and absent in psychosis. The Name-of-the-Father is not the father but the condition of the installation of a paternal ideal and of the Oedipus. The ego ideal and the Oedipus are seriously flawed in psychosis.

It is not only the imaginary that is alienating. Lacan considered the symbolic as unavoidably alienating ever since the beginning of his psychoanalytical career and therefore fictional. [13] Alienation by identification with ideal signifiers installs a scene structured by the symbolico-imaginary in which the subject is topologically alienated from the drives. The drives ex-sist to the scene. [14] Ex-sistence is a depositioning. He is using a topological term which puts drive outside the scene but close to it. At other moments he talks not about the ex-sistence of the drives but about their repression. The ego in the scene, misled by the ego ideal, imagines the drives other than they are in an act called fantasy which is the ultimate fictional direction. The mirror stage is a fantasy machine, generating the fantasy of a total body. The previous auto-erotic phase was a fragmented one. [15] The ego becomes a defence against another fantasy called the body-in-pieces or corps morcelé. 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. [16]

The symbolic and imaginary elements conspire to give reality a fictional consistency in which the real is hidden in the case of neurotic structure. 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. The subject who does not conform to the homogeneity of the community is for that community not a subject but an object. If we add that the community may consider the non-conforming subject unfit to conform, then we have the start of racism.

The Tory leader declares multiculturalism dead. We say that each multiculturalism constructs a social bond. Does he really want to dissolve all those social bonds? Could one suggest that appended to this term multiculturalism be ‘without segregation’, multiculturalism without segregation, allowing it the time it takes to be constructed. This community of which he is leader should not be too worried since its reality already has been compromised. It has a fictional consistency. Reality has no intrinsic existence. The ego is neither a measurer of 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 joke.

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. [17] Those of us who live in the scene experience the world other than it is in the act of phantasy. The scene is the world of recognition but not the world, says Lacan. [18] In this binary is hidden another, existential binary, namely existence/essence. The scene provides us with essence and the world with ex-sistence. Not only is the scene not the world, the world has to the scene a relation of ex-sistence. The scene is established in the dimension of historical time where objects are described and cosmic time belongs to the world. These two notions of time are not explained. [19]

We are alienated in the scene. What happens in the world with its cosmic time and the real? The drives belong to the world and ex-sist to the scene. The world consists of the leftovers that drop out of the scene, for instance carbon. The drives take up some space in the world. 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? [20] The procedure in the Lacanian orientation, if I have understood it, invites the subject to leave the scene for the world. [21] It cannot invite the drives into the scene. Leaving the scene for the world could be another expression for the crossing of the fantasy. Leaving the scene for the world has also been called a fugue. Such a traveller is suffering from a dissociative disorder, according to the DSM. It was at one time considered a hysterical phenomenon. [22] In psychoanalysis it is not a disorder, rather an orientation in the procedure. In some schools the procedure is based on a paranoia dirigée. By basing it on a fugue dirigée we have a musical advantage.

Why doesn’t Lacan in 1949 centre the ego on the system perception-conscious? The answer is to be found in the scene in which the baby turns towards its mother awaiting confirmation of its mirror image by a signifier. The mother structures the image by adding signifiers to it. She is persuading the infant that the image belongs to it. The spontaneous gestures of the infant before the mirror happen are the effect of this persuasion. 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. [23] We will find the ego’s centre in the function of méconnaissance, translated as misrecognition or as Verneinung, which is the principle of all its defensive structures. [24] Fantasy is a méconnaissance of the world, that is, it takes the world for something other than it is- which is as good a translation of méconnaissance as any. So-called deniers of climate change are operating a méconnaissance or negation.

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. [25] However, Kojeve on Hegel at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes from 1933 to 1939 makes recognition Hegelian, that is, correlative to desire. If the mirror stage is preceded by recognition, desire is anterior to the ego. It is the constituting desire of the big Other which is to add signifiers. It makes language a priori. [26]

Before the mirror stage the ego does not exist. The big Other is there ab initio as an operator. What is operating on the side of the individual who at six months of age becomes active in the affair? What is operating if there is no ego? Lacan needs a subject to operate the push to identification in the mirror stage. He is already constructing the notion of the subject in the post war papers. A subjective solution is to hand. In 1948 recognition implies subjectivity. [27] It’s out of a lack that a desire for recognition emerges. Recognition which is correlative to desire implies a lack in being. This lack in being is the subject that triggers desire for recognition, leading to the identification of the mirror stage. The subject is a functor of identification, to use Jacques-Alain Miller’s term. There is a pull by the ego ideal which is the signifier 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. The ego is the effect of the image of the little other, i(a). The subject is the supposition of the signifier. 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. [28] There is no ego to recognise the image. There is a subject for whom the signifier organises the visual field, mediating the image. In 1955 the subject can be parasitized by the ego. He says the ego is never but half of the subject. [29] 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 the lack in being is. It puts us in a position to interpret his 1949 statement that language gives the subject a universal function. [30] 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. It would be the fundamental division. [31]

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. [32] 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. [33] Lack is a structuring feature of language. This feature is absent in some clinical structures. Where it is present, language is the cause of castration.

There is a passage in the 1949 paper in which a notion of lack appears: “. . . the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust accelerates from inadequacy (?lack) to anticipation (?desire)- 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 (auto-erotism) to a form that we would call orthopaedic in its totality (ego). . .” [34] Is there a concept of lack locked away in the term inadequacy and a concept of desire in the term anticipation? The identified subject is found in the term anticipation. A non-identified subject, undetermined by lack, begins to exercise itself in a desire for recognition. That is to say, it’s seeking determination.

Lagache provoked Lacan into recommending leaving the analysand undetermined in a situation of saturation. 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. [35] Interpretations 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, he has often to say “I don’t know”. [36] 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. [37] 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. [38] 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 Seminar III identifications are revocable. [39] 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. The consequences of revoking identification could be catastrophic. There is still a subject, but this very subjective function as a push to identification has to be destituted at the end of the procedure for the neurotic.

Richard Klein, Finsbury Park, London

Addendum: in honour of Buddha

In Buddhism the function of the mirror is used to indicate to the disciple what path not to take. Lacan thought the same: don’t take the banal path.

In the Buddhist experience desire is an illusion. If there is an object of your desire, according to Lacan, taking this experience seriously, it’s nothing else but yourself. You recognise yourself in the little other (S10, p. 257). Is sympathy an illusion, then? No doubt! What the illusion also hides is the lack that is the source of desire.

A great event took place in China in the seventh century CE. Hung-jen believed in the concept of mind and instructed his pupils to keep their guard on it. In one version the working thesis was that Buddha nature was a concept of the mind and that all beings were endowed with it. Two rival monks, Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng, both disciples of Hung-jen, became locked in a debate about this concept of Buddha nature. It’s discernible from the debate that the teaching of Gautama Buddha had not yet been completely realised amongst this lot in China. Out of the debate the famous Zen tendency in Buddhism emerged (Donald W. Mitchell, Buddhism, Introducing the Buddhist Experience, OUP, 2002).

Shen-hsiu interpreted his master’s thesis of the mind by introducing the metaphor of the mirror in a poem:

Our body is the Bodhi tree,

And our mind a mirror bright;

Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,

And let no dust alight.

Our mind and body function like a mirror, creating narcissistic effects. It obliges us to keep wiping the dust off. We have to keep the body Libidinally invested. The libido in this case is, of course, imaginary. But there is no concept of mind in Buddhism.

According to Hui-neng, meditation based on the thesis this poem supports leads the subject to the mirror of consciousness in which it expects to see the image of its original pure being reflected. Hui-neng like Lacan limits his definition of consciousness just to this specular image. The specular image in the mirror of consciousness is the subject’s imaginary partner, namely the little other. Hui-neng says that meditation based on the body-image is static and has a suicidal effect on life. The specular image is static and enciphers destructive tendencies. It’s a narcissistic, suicidal tendency, says Lacan. When the subject strikes the other, he strikes himself. The concept of an original purity of mind constructed like a mirror goes against Zen practice, the origin of which lies in Hui-neng’s counter-thesis, according to Mitchell, also proclaimed in a poem:

There is no Bodhi tree,

Nor stand of mirror bright.

Since all is void,

Where can the dust alight?

In Shen-hsiu’ poem the place of the image is being used as defence against the nothingness in Hui-neng’s poem. The former poem is indexed on the matheme i(a). It stands for the image of the little other which is the specular image that gives you your ego in an imaginary identification. I can index on Hui-neng’s poem that gives prominence to nothingness the object little (a), that is, the void of the lost object. Hui-neng declares ‘from the first not a thing is’, and anything else is dust wiping Buddhism, again according to Mitchell. In some retrospective effect of object-loss Hui-neng applies it from the beginning.



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] See Freud’s graph in Group Psychology. . . (1921), SEXVIII, p. 116.
  • [4] Op. cit., p. 76.
  • [5] Throughout the dozen years that follow Lacan will nevertheless emphasise the symbolic over the imaginary and the real.
  • [6] Lacan, J., “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis” (1948), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 95.
  • [7] Ibid., pp. 150, 153.
  • [8] Lacan, J., “Presentation on Psychical Causality” (1946), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co, 2006, pp. 153, 154.
  • [9] Ibid., pp. 152,153.
  • [10] Jouissance is not a concept Lacan has yet. After it has been kicking around in his teaching for quite a while, he also translates it, following Freud, as Unlust. The subject under the pacifying influence of the ego ideal renounces enjoyment. There is a leftover of this enjoyment in the locus of the little other at the point the specular image has remained external or projected.
  • [11] Ibid., pp. 123, 124.
  • [12] Having discussed this with a colleague, Mark Fisher, I have to say now that structure itself is a signifier as well as a function. It is a necessary signifier, a twin of the ontological argument which deals with necessary being rather than necessary structure. No structure, no psychoanalysis! No structure, no CBT! Structure is a necessary concept for subject.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 148.
  • [14] Lacan, J., “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation” (1960), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co, 2006, p. 554.
  • [15] It may very well be a phase whilst it’s being lived by the subject. The phase is modified retrospectively by the mirror until we finally arrive at castration which modifies as structure what the subject lived before.
  • [16] Little a had nothing but imaginary structures indexed on it when Lacan later shifted its interpretation to other functions such as real functions.
  • [17] The mirror stage involves two identifications, an imaginary and a symbolic one. The scene is taken as structured by the symbolico-imaginary.
  • [18] Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre X, L’angoisse (1962-3), Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2004, pp. 44, 45.
  • [19] Cosmic time includes the origin of the universe the effects of which are still experienced in cosmology.
  • [20] Lacan (1960), op. cit., 554.
  • [21] The world is also the place of earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, high seas, storms, that is, the place of weather which invites itself into the scene. Whatever scene is being played out on the bridge, a ship at sea is in the world. I am guessing that the world is the place that is still influenced by the effects of the origins of the universe.
  • [22] A contemporary analyst might want to consider the phenomenon an effect of psychotic structure and not just a dissociative disorder.
  • [23] Lacan (1962-3), op.cit., p. 42.
  • [24] Lacan (1949), p. 80.
  • [25] Lacan, J., “Presentation on Psychical Causality” (1946), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p.148.
  • [26] Lacan, J., Television/A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, W.W. Norton & Co., p. 36.
  • [27] Lacan, J., “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis” (1948), Ecrits, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 91.
  • [28] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 76.
  • [29] Lacan, J., “Variations on the Standard Treatment” (1955), op. cit., p. 287.
  • [30] Lacan (1949), p.76.
  • [31] Lacan grasps the divided subject by way of the linguistic theory of the shifter.
  • [32] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p.78.
  • [33] Lacan (1966), op.cit., p. 55.
  • [34] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p.78.
  • [35] Lacan (1960), op. cit., p. 547.
  • [36] Lacan (1962-3), op.cit., p. 25.
  • [37] The determinism that one speaks about in psychoanalysis is Oedipal. Otherwise in certain cases determinism is posed to be in opposition to randomness and unpredictability. I don’t know if the increasing desaturation of the subject is tantamount to introducing randomness. At the level of the subject there is lack. It’s probably not useful for a woman to try to hold down the position of The Woman. I would say that this position is rather saturated. Crossing the La with a bar or putting the bar through the noun, as we have to in English, desaturates her position. But does the bar introduce randomness in her structure? Probably!
  • [38] Lacan (1949), op. cit., p. 79.
  • [39] Lacan (1955-6), p.14.

© 2023