Lacan, Jacques

Assigned: Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1111-17); from “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” (1117-29); “The Signification of the Phallus” (1129-37). Also read the editors’ introduction (1105-11).

“The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949)

1. On 1111-12 (“The conception of the mirror stage…”), according to Jacques Lacan, what is the first thing a baby does upon seeing its own image in a mirror? How does Lacan describe what the baby sees in the mirror, and how it behaves in the presence of the image?

2. On 1112-14 (“We have only to understand…”), what kind of identification does a baby come away with from its mirror experience, according to Lacan? Why is it significant that the “form” the child sees in the mirror “situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone…” (1112)? Does the image in the mirror correspond exactly to the child’s experience of its own body, its own movements? What is meant by the term “Gestalt” (1113) in connection with what is seen in the mirror and the effect it has on the child? Explain.

3. On 1114 (“I have myself shown in the social…”), how does Lacan describe the child’s relation with nature, or the “natural reality” that surrounds it? What “organic insufficiency” besets a child in relation to that natural reality? What is “the function of the imago” in this regard? (Vocabulary note: Lacan tends to use medical terms and the odd rhetorical term: what do “capitation” and “dehiscence” mean in the present passages?)

4. On 1114-15 (“This development is experienced as…”), what kind of “drama” does Lacan say the mirror stage amounts to? Describe the movement into adult selfhood that is projected by the mirror stage. How does the “fragmented body-image” (1114) he posits underscore the difficulties that beset a human being’s attempts to achieve a satisfactory identity (i.e., to achieve the “Ideal-I” seemingly promised by the imago, the integral image in the mirror)?

5. On 1115-16 (“This moment in which the mirror-stage…”), how does Lacan analyze the significance of the moment at which the mirror stage ends? How is that moment structured so as to set in place a certain aggressivity in a person’s social relations from that point forwards? Why does it matter that—as the editors point out—“human desire is not natural” but is rather “shaped by fictions and prohibitions” (1115 footnote 2)?

6. On 1116-17 (“At the culmination of the historical effort…”), what impression does Lacan offer of modern European societies only four years after the end of World War II, a period that saw a death-cult in Germany commit genocide and nearly destroy civilization in its desire to dominate the world? How does that impression connect with the dark side, the risks, inherent in the process whereby individual human identity is formed from the mirror stage to adulthood? Why, in Lacan’s view, is it unwise to trust “altruistic feeling” (1117) as a vehicle to escape humanity’s problems?

7. On 1116-17 (“At the culmination of the historical effort…”), why, according to Lacan, shouldn’t we anchor our understanding of the ego or the self to what traditional Freudians refer to as “the reality principle” (1116)? (Freud had written that the ego, or rational self, mediates between the non-rational id—that squirming bag of appetites at the core of our being—and the superego or conscience.) What, then, should be our starting point in understanding human development?

From “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” (1957)

1. On 1117-18 (“As my title suggests…”), how does Lacan lay out what he means by “language”? What appears to be the importance of the fact that “language and its structure exist prior to the point at which each subject […] makes his entry into it” (1117)? Then, too, what is the significance of language to human individuals and societies, and to his own psychoanalytic project as well, as one of the human sciences?

2. On 1118-20 (“To pinpoint the emergence of…”), what view does Lacan, with the aid of the S/s (signifier over signified) equation that he has adapted from Swiss linguist Ferdinand des Saussure, advance concerning the nature of language, or “signification” (1119)? According to him, why would it be inaccurate to suggest that “the signifier answers to the function of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to answer for its existence in the name of any signification whatever” (1119 bottom)? In sum, how is Lacan giving us what we might (if a bit prematurely or proleptically) call a “poststructuralist” notion of language here?

3. On 1120-22 (“To return to our formula S/s…”), Lacan replaces Ferdinand de Saussure’s model of signifier and signified (the word “tree” / the concept or sound-image “tree,” symbolized by the image of a tree) with a picture of two doors, above one of which is written “Ladies” and above the other “Gentlemen.” The editors provide an explanation in footnote 5 at the bottom of page 1121, but try to explain in your own words how Lacan’s model differs significantly from that of de Saussure. How does Lacan further explicate the point of his model by recounting a humorous anecdote about two kids pulling into a train station?

4. On 1122-26 (“But it is not because the undertakings…”), in a further exploration of Saussurean linguistics, how does Lacan take issue with the principle of linearity the linguist himself attributed to the process of signification? Why does Lacan think that principle is not valid, that it does not do justice to the complexity of the process? (1122-23) In addition, how do metonymy and metaphor, as Lacan adapts ideas about those tropes from Roman Jakobson and from French poets, respectively, help him make his case about how language signifies, and how it does not? (1124-26)

5. On 1126-29 (“For in the analysis of dreams, Freud…”), how does Lacan implicitly tie his discussion of metaphor (which depends on similarity and substitution) and metonymy (which works in accordance with difference and contiguity) to his own “linguistic updating” of Freud’s theory of the Unconscious, which Freud said relied on the two key functions of repression and displacement? (Lacan famously wrote in his 1957 essay “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud” that “[T]he unconscious is structured like a language.”) Finally, what does Lacan appear to be getting at when he offers up cryptic utterances such as, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” and “I think of what I am where I do not think to think” (1128)? In responding, see the editors’ footnote 1 at the bottom of page 1127, which points out that ego psychology is the object of Lacan’s criticisms in this part of the text.

“The Signification of the Phallus” (1958)

1. On 1129-30 (“We know that the unconscious…”), how does Lacan initially assess the psychic significance for the male child of the “castration complex” in terms of individual psychosexual development? What “antinomy” (1129) does he say besets our understanding of this important phenomenon?

2. On 1130 (“It is only on the basis of the clinical…”), Lacan writes that clinical facts “reveal a relation of the subject to the phallus that is established without regard to the anatomical difference of the sexes,” which seeming gender-irrelevance or neutrality therefore poses special problems with regard to how women relate to the phallus. What four headings does Lacan list and then discuss in order to convey the difficulty of explaining the “phallic stage” in relation to female development?

3. On 1131-33 (“It might be a good idea to re-examine…”), how does Lacan introduce into his examination the key notion that the psychic structures he is exploring function like a language, and work like the movement of signification itself? In what sense, according to Lacan, is the phallus “a signifier” (1133) rather than referring in any way to an actual sex organ or anything determinate and accessible?

4. On 1134 (“Demand in itself bears on something…”), how is a “demand” for love “something other than the satisfactions it calls for” (1134 top)? What, then, is this demand a demand for? What definition of “desire” does Lacan offer, and how is it to be distinguished from “need”? According to Lacan, how should we understand desire’s significance with regard to sexual functioning and relationships?

5. On 1134 (“Demand in itself bears on something…”), what strong criticism does Lacan make of some psychoanalytic schools’ promise of an achievement of simple happiness, wholeness, the “total personality,” and so forth? Why is he so scornful of such optimistic formulations?

6. On 1135 (“The phallus is the privileged signifier…”), Lacan returns to the complexities of the phallus as a kind of “signifier.” Why does it matter that the phallus, as signifier, “can play its role only when veiled” and that “it is in the place of the Other that the subject has access to it”?

7. On 1136-37 (“Thus, to begin with, the Kleinian fact…”), how does Lacan draw the significance of the theory of the-phallus-as-signifier that he has been developing with regard to psychosexual relationships between men and women? What does this theory generally suggest about the many difficulties and frustrations experienced by men and women in their everyday relationships? Finally, what comments does he make about the nature of same-sex desire?

8. General question: Jacques Lacan’s work (like that of certain other contemporary theorists and philosophers, to be fair) has often been described as enigmatic, opaque, and otherwise frustrating to interpret. Few readers will likely disagree. But now that you have read some of this author’s material, list and explain at least two ideas that you consider valuable insights about human psychology in the wake of Freud (whose work Lacan obviously takes as his point of departure) and that might play a constructive role in literary analysis or some other field of study that interests you. One insight to consider, for example, might be Lacan’s insistence in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1111-17) that as human infants develop, they experience their body as disjointed and partial, yet encounter a whole-seeming “mirror-based” self-image, or an image of self-as-other, which has profound consequences for their psychological development. How might that kind of fundamental and perpetual dissatisfaction play a role in literary narrative, drama, or poetry?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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