Lacan’s Mirror Stage

In the process of childhood growth, there are two methods in which the subject is conditioned to distinguish what they perceive in the world, and in which they transform their immediate sense perception into a symbolic hierarchy. For Kristeva this is known as the movement from the chora stage, and to Sigmund Freud this phase detailed the formation of the ego. In Freud there are two catalysts for this phase, the first of which lies in object-relations, where pleasure is derived from sensory objects, but certain objects are suddenly recognized as more pleasurable than others because they contain traits that are far more desirable than those inherent in other objects. The second element is identity, which Lacan explains in the Mirror Stage, as the basis for distinguishing the world. In the Mirror Stage, identity is formed based upon the ability to differentiate oneself from the parents (to Freud, the father) through the reflection of the mirror. Here we can grasp two different, and not quite mutually exclusive, methods of deriving the ability to distinguish and differentiate into symbolic hierarchy. The first, as Freud puts it, is the “object-cathexis”, and the other, “identification”.

To Freud, object-cathexis certainly comes before identity, though technically object and identity are not differentiated in the chora/oral stage, and thus either have yet to appear. The mother’s breast is “the prototype of an object-choice’, from which the young boy develops an immediate object-cathexis for his mother. The object in this case, the breast, is quite different from the other objects—the toys, the crib, etc. However, as can be observed by the infants willingness to suck on just about anything, in this “primitive oral phase”, the specialization of the breast as a ‘milk-producing apparatus’ hasn’t been correctly distinguished, nor has the child itself distinguished the provider of that milk as something other than himself or the other sensory objects. The child begins to realize this, perhaps through countless testing (sucking on fingers, its own hand, and realizing that it contains no nourishment), and begins to identify nourishment not only with the texture and look of the breast, but with the voice and character that accompanies it—the mother.

The ego, which is still feeble, appears in this stage with the displacement of the object-cathexis, creating a transition of differentiation, from the erotic object-choice into an alteration of the ego, which Freud sees as “a method by which the ego can obtain control over the id”.[i] The ego in this case attempts to replace the object-cathexis with itself, and in this act, presents the formation of the ability to distinguish objects comes concomitantly with the ability to attach phenomena into a symbolic hierarchy. The mother’s breast becomes the prime concern in this hierarchy, which the ego seeks to replace with itself, implanting a survival instinct within the infant. The hierarchy changes form: It’s no longer within objects, where the “top” object is the one that emits the most pleasure (the breast), rather it’s the function of that object as a means of pleasuring the self that becomes most important, and the form of hierarchy becomes a case of self-identity, rather than the perceived object-relation. An attachment to the object, through the ego, becomes an attachment not to the object, but to the identity that the object brings as a self. To Freud, this is the formation of the ego in its most feeble state.

In the formation of identity and object difference, Freud assigns the formation quite clearly to the parents: with the object-cathexis it is the mother, and with identity, at least with the young boy, it is the father. Freud describes the identification with the father as “a direct and immediate identification and takes place earlier than any object-cathexis”.[ii] Keeping in mind the notion of hierarchy present in differentiation, the hierarchy cannot stop at the mirror phase, with the creation of the ego, for the ego is only fully formed in comparison with the father, and therefore the father now replaces the object-cathexis as the prime concern of the subject. The desire to supplant the father culminates with the Oedipus Complex, in which the father figure manifests into the Superego.

In Freud, the progression from the chora/oral stage into a world of differentiations, as we have just seen, cannot be totally separated from a world of structured hierarchies, wherein the ego is always just about at the top, but can never quite get there. So too can we not totally separate the origins of differentiation and hierarchy with the desire to be at the top of that hierarchy. To Otto Rank, hierarchy continues to change after the development of the Superego, as Superego manifests itself as a projection upon different “masters”. Rank concerns himself with the artist, where the influence of “great art” upon a subject becomes a projection of the desire to overcome the Superego within the constructed hierarchy. For Rank, this construction leads the artist to an inevitable attempt to supplant the artists that influence him, and to become “top” of the hierarchy within themselves, though as Rank shows in his analysis of anxiety, can never be fully attained.

The structural hierarchy created by the ego can be seen as a fluid construction that takes many forms, beginning with object-cathexis, moving to identity, and then to the influence/pupil relationship in Rank. In this sense, the hierarchical structure is a protean construction within the psyche, which once it is “stomped out” in one form (or simply ‘recognized’ by reason or otherwise), must then reappear in a form that is more difficult to recognize. One can then begin to move from the question “how does one disintegrate the hierarchy?” to the far more pressing question: “What forms does hierarchy take, as soon as it is believed to be fully eradicated?”


[i] Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton, 1962. 20

[ii] Ibid, 21.

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