“What will you do with all that I say? Will you record it on a little thing and organize soirées by invitation only? — Hey, I’ve got a tape by Lacan!”
Lorenzo Chieza begins his 2007 book Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan with this funny little remark from Lacan’s Seminar XVII. Even the act of numbering the seminars with Roman numerals reveals a kind of reverence reserved in America for only the most momentous of events, like the Oscars and the Super Bowl. Lacan would seemingly have been in an excellent position to acknowledge the importance of the other’s gaze in establishing self-image. I want to write maybe two or three posts about this book before sending it back to the library along with whatever memories I might have retained of it.
Though Lacan’s description of the etiology of self-image diverges from empirical evidence (1), his contention that self-image begins as a reflection of others’ image of the self is well-supported by the research (2). What I have a hard time grasping is Lacan’s radical distinction and split between the Imaginary and the Symbolic in the formation of the self. Recognizing one’s image in a mirror depends on the very same sort of identification with the perspective of the other that’s foundational to language acquisition. Adopting others’ perspective on how they see you is of a kind with adopting how others talk about you. Visual images may affect the viewer in ways that may elude conscious awareness or verbal description. But the same could be said for mood or body language or tone and volume of speech. For that matter, it’s possible to listen to speech, to understand its meaning, and to respond with intelligible verbalization of one’s own, and still the personal impact of the other’s words may resonate at a level beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.
The difference, presumably, is this: the Imaginary presentation of self-as-reflection creates the illusion of one’s wholeness and completeness, whereas the Symbolic representation of self-as-description cuts the self up into a multitude of separate verbal signifiers. Also presumably, the creation of the Imaginary whole self precedes the symbolic castration that resolves the Oedipus complex and embeds the self in the social and linguistic order dominated by the name-of-the-Father. Language separates the self from its idealized self-image and shatters its unity into a multiplicity of words. At the same time, the self attempts to restore its lost wholeness in part by assembling an ego-ideal: a collection of features, and the words for describing these features, that project (to oneself and to others) the semblance of wholeness within the Symbolic order. Of course there’s always something missing, not least because language itself is a radical divider of wholeness, and so the self continually strives to restore this lost and irretrievable ideal self-image through a variety of futile efforts.
As I noted in the prior post, children typically don’t recognize their own reflection until after they’ve already begun both understanding and speaking language. And as shown in a recent experiment, magpies demonstrate their ability to recognize themselves in the mirror not by preening proudly before an idealized self-image, but by trying to remove the splotch of paint that makes the image less than perfect. I would expect that a child or a magpie would first recognize herself not by seeing in the glass an Imaginary ideal and applying it to herself, but by noting how performing discrete physical movements of individual body parts result in the same movements being performed by the reflection’s corresponding body parts. In other words, recognizing one’s reflection depends on discriminating parts from whole.
Now of course it wasn’t mine to experience, but I observed no evidence of trauma associated with my daughter’s learning to use language. She seemed quite eager to demonstrate her understanding of others’ words and especially her newfound ability to make herself understood verbally. Like other infants she added words rapidly to her vocabulary. It’s true that her first spoken word was “Da,” by which she firmly and forever established herself in my personal Symbolic order. But her second word was “green,” from which I’m unable to derive any sort of general psychological insight. Much of this early language facility seemed unrelated to her issuing demands for getting her needs met. Of course language acquisition followed hot on the heels of her ability to crawl/walk/run, her increasing adeptness at manipulating physical objects, her imitative ability, her ability to perform increasingly complex tasks, and so on. Language emerged in her repertoire, on developmental schedule, as one of the many skills every normal human acquires at an early age. And she seemed very pleased indeed with her ever-increasing competence.
At the same time, each of these skills didn’t arise fully formed: a lot of repetition was involved, a lot of trial and error. Learning to walk means falling down again and again. It’s sometimes painful, more often frustrating — a consistent source of negative feedback debunking one’s perfect and complete self-image even before language acquisition begins. But little kids seem to exhibit surprisingly little frustration in learning to speak. Our daughter demonstrated admirable tolerance of her parents’ persistent inability to understand what she was telling us. Patiently she would repeat herself again and again until at last we got it; then she seemed just as pleased with our learning as we were with hers.
In short, the Ideal-Symbolic split, the Oedipal castration, the loss of completeness — none of our daughter’s supposed early trauma made itself manifest to us, none of it seemed to make her unhappy. Instead, she seemed quite pleased with herself and her ever-expanding human competency. I don’t recall her spending much of her early childhood developing self-discourses intended either to describe or to repair her shattered Ideal ego. That didn’t happen until, oh, about ten years later.