Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lacan's "The Mirror Stage" and "The Signification of the Phallus"

After reading these two essays again, I have noticed a few things about Lacanian theory that I had heard, but that had never really clicked in my head. In "The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I in psychoanalytic experience," Lacan postulates that the point at which a pre-verbal child can first recognize her own image in a mirror is both the beginning of that child's concept of a stable self and "an essential stage of the act of intelligence" (1). This definition of the mirror stage lines up with what I already knew about the theory. What's new to me is how that stage, given that it finds stability in instability by saying that self is self because self is not reflection, falls in line with Deconstructionist theory and semiotics. Deconstructionist semiotics teaches that all language both differs and defers; that we derive meaning from a unit of language both by comparing it to what it it isn't, and by thinking through its connections and mental associations with other words. Example: When I say "dog," you probably think "not cat," but you also (quickly and perhaps unconsciously) think "retriever or shepherd or collie or poodle or etc." "Dog" both differs and defers. Seeing this connection makes me dislike Lacan less, or at least respect the importance of his theoretical contributions more.

The second thing I had heard but never understood is that while most readers of psychoanalysis differentiate heavily between its Freudian and Lacanian iterations, Lacan considered himself a Freudian. This was unclear to me until I began to notice how many references to dream interpretation appear in "The Mirror Stage...". In dreams, Lacan says, we discover how our "fragmented bodies" as delivered to us through our reflections are a vehicle to the wholeness represented by the individual self. We dream of having mangled limbs or growing wings when we analyze the existence of our individual selves and try to separate "true" self from reflected or perceived self (4), and we dream of fortresses and journeys to locked and isolated places when we try to reconcile the true with the perceived (5). He concludes that there is really no difference between truth and perception in terms of the self, as the so-called true self is also filtered through perception(6-7).

It's when I get to "The Signification of the Phallus" that I start to get really upset. Because the phallus is significant (in that it contains signifiers semiotically, but also in that it is considered important, in the more common sense of the word) and woman is lack, "Woman finds the signifier of her own desire in the body of him to whom she addresses her demand for love’ (577). Like the child in the mirror, she is because she is not. It gets tricky, though, because for Lacan, woman is the site of the impossible return to the realm of the Real (unity of self and unconscious that only happens pre-birth). The French feminists turn this around and mine power from it. More on that tomorrow when I discuss Irigaray and Freud.

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