Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan (French pronunciation: [ʒak lakɑ̃]) (April 13, 1901 – September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary theory. He gave yearly seminars, in Paris, from 1953 to 1981, mostly influencing France’s intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially the post-structuralist philosophers. His interdisciplinary work is Freudian, featuring the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego; identification; and language as subjective perception, and thus he figures in critical theory, literary studies, twentieth-century French philosophy, and clinical psychoanalysis.

The ‘Return to Freud’

Lacan’s “return to Freud” emphasizes a renewed attention to the original texts of Freud and a radical critique of Ego psychology, Melanie Klein and Object relations theory. Lacan thought that Freud’s ideas of “slips of the tongue”, jokes, et cetera, all emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution. In “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud” (Écrits, pp. 161 – 197) he argued that “the unconscious is structured like a language”; it was not a primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, but a formation as complex and structurally sophisticated as consciousness itself. If the unconscious is structured like a language, he claimed, then the self is denied any point of reference to which to be ‘restored’ following trauma or ‘identity crisis’.

[edit] The mirror stage (le stade du miroir)

Main article: Mirror stage

Lacan’s first official contribution to psychoanalysis was the mirror stage which he described ” as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience”. By the early fifties, he no longer considered the mirror stage as only a moment in the life of the infant, but as the permanent structure of subjectivity. In the paradigm of The Imaginary order, the subject is permanently caught and captivated by his own image. Lacan writes, “[T]he mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image”.[8]

As he further develops the concept, the stress falls less on its historical value and more on its structural value.[4] In his fourth Seminar, La relation d’objet, Lacan states that “the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship”.

The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of objectification, the Ego being the result of feeling dissension between one’s perceived visual appearance and one’s perceived emotional reality. This identification is what Lacan called alienation. At six months the baby still lacks coordination. However, he can recognize himself in the mirror before attaining control over his bodily movements. He sees his image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens him with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego.[4] The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery, yet the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother.[9] This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

In the Mirror stage a misunderstanding – “méconnaissance” – constitutes the Ego—the ‘moi’ becomes alienated from himself through the introduction of the Imaginary order subject. It must be said that the mirror stage has also a significant symbolic dimension. The Symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying the infant: the moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head towards this adult who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image.[10]

[edit] Other/other

While Freud uses the term “other”, referring to der Andere (the other person) and “das Andere” (otherness), Lacan’s use is more like Hegel’s, through Alexandre Kojève.

Lacan often used an algebraic symbology for his concepts:[11] the big Other is designated A (for French Autre) and the little other is designated a (italicized French autre). He asserts that an awareness of this distinction is fundamental to analytic practice: ‘the analyst must be imbued with the difference between A and a,[12] so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other’.[13]

  1. The little other is the other who is not really other, but a reflection and projection of the Ego. He is both the counterpart or the other people in whom the subject perceives a visual likeness (semblable), and the specular image or the reflection of one’s body in the mirror. In this way the little other is entirely inscribed in The Imaginary order. See Objet Petit a.
  2. The big Other designates a radical alterity, an otherness transcending the illusory otherness of the Imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law: the big Other is inscribed in The Symbolic order, being in fact the Symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is then another subject and also the Symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject.

‘The Other must first of all be considered a locus, the locus in which speech is constituted’.[14] We can speak of the Other as a subject in a secondary sense, only when a subject may occupy this position and thereby embody the Other for another subject.[15]

When he argues that speech originates not in the Ego nor in the subject, but in the Other, Lacan stresses that speech and language are beyond one’s conscious control; they come from another place, outside consciousness, and then ‘the unconscious is the discourse of the Other’.[16] When conceiving the Other as a place, Lacan refers to Freud’s concept of physical locality, in which the unconscious is described as “the other scene”.

“It is the mother who first occupies the position of the big Other for the child, it is she who receives the child’s primitive cries and retroactively sanctions them as a particular message”.[4] The castration complex is formed when the child discovers that this Other is not complete, that there is a Lack (manque) in the Other. This means that there is always a signifier missing from the trove of signifiers constituted by the Other. Lacan illustrates this incomplete Other graphically by striking a bar through the symbol A; hence another name for the castrated, incomplete Other is the ‘barred Other’.[17][18]

Feminists thinkers have both criticized and utilized Lacan’s concepts of castration and the (Symbolic) Phallus. Many feminists believe that Lacan’s phallocentric analysis provides a useful means of understanding gender biases and imposed roles. Some feminist critics, notably Luce Irigaray,[19] accuse Lacan of maintaining the sexist tradition in psychoanalysis. For Irigaray, rather than the Phallus defining a single axis of gender by its presence/absence, gender has two positive poles. Like Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, in criticism of Lacan’s concept of castration, discusses the phallus in a chiasmus with the hymen, as both one and other, as Derrida returns to Freud’s case of the Wolf Man in The Dissemination.[20] Other feminists, such as Judith Butler,[21] Jane Gallop,[22] and Elizabeth Grosz,[7] have each interpreted Lacan’s work as opening up new possibilities for feminist theory.