In 1949 Jacques Lacan wrote an essay called “The Mirror Stage,” in which he outlined a theory of how children develop a sense of self. The idea derives from the young child’s ability to recognize his own image in a mirror.
This event can take place, as we have known since Baldwin, from the age of six months, and its repetition has made me reflect upon the startling spectacle of the infant in front of the mirror. Unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up, held tightly as he is by some support, human or artificial, he nevertheless overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support and, fixing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold it in its gaze, brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image.
Lacan offers a nicely nuanced empirical observation. Problem is, it’s not true. Researchers have consistently found that a child doesn’t recognize his reflected image until 18 to 24 months (see yesterday’s post) — after standing, after walking, after the beginning of language acquisition. But we continue. Lacan says that the child identifies with his own reflection.
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infancy stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nurseling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.
Again Lacan’s developmental sequence is off. A few posts ago we saw how as early as 9 months the child enters into the referential triangle of self and adult jointly orienting themselves toward the world. Learning within the triangle, the child already participates in the “dialectic of identification with the other,” seeing himself as being similar to the other in intentionality and orientation toward the world. Thus the child can follow the adult’s pointing finger to an object, and even the verbal instruction to look at the named object, long before the child can recognize his own reflection.
The important point, says Lacan, is that this specular self-image situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction. It is the “ideal-I,” a sense of the self as a whole and integrated being rather than a chaotic assembly of body parts and the seeminly random motion that animates them. But it’s an exterior, two-dimensional view, an “image,” an imaginary unity. Whatever the child subsequently learns about himself through social interaction and language will never replace the specular image. He ends up internally doubled, the socially-constructed I forever alienated from the specular I, the I of reality always lacking in comparison with the ideal-I that precedes it. Subsequently the child attempts to construct a unified and autonomous self to match the ideal-I. But it’s futile, resulting in an ego that is a rigid, dead, hollow superstructure, like a fortress or a mannequin, accompanied by the paranoiac fear of total self-dissolution.
But emirical findings summarized by Tomasello strongly suggest that the self-image first emerges in social interaction. In early infancy the child learns to take the other’s perspective in jointly attending to the world. If the other points to the child, then the child begins to see himself as something in the world that the other can recognize. It’s likely that this prior social self-pointing gives the child the self-objectification necessary to recognize himself in the mirror.
So, Lacan locates the origin of neurosis in the sense of loss: a primal self-integration and plenitude that’s been lost, perhaps stolen, in social and linguistic interaction with others. The self then becomes motivated both to recover the lost sense of self and to compensate for the hole in the self where the integrated self used to be. But if the sense of self emerges first from social-linguistic interaction, then this specular, imaginary, fictional, ideal sense of self, if it exists at all, would have developed after and as an artifact of the socially constructed sense of self. The cascade of effects for Lacanian psychopathology would seem profound.