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Lacanian Psychoanalysis: The Mirror Stage and the Wound of Split Subjectivity

“I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it is through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.” —Jacques Lacan

Psychoanalysis attempts to study the way we perceive reality by engaging with the structure of the unconscious “Other” (super-ego) which influences our consciousness. Psychoanalysis also studies the fundamentals of our desires that has been repressed into the unconscious. The tricky part is to understand the way the study of desire is closely associated with language, such as the desire to write or read this text. The most difficult aspect of understanding Lacan’s psychoanalytical writings—especially his seminars—is that the text does not privilege itself. In other words, Lacan applies his psychoanalytical ideas into his own writing as he tries to explain them. Since the reader (you) is a human being with an unconscious mind, he wants to make them experience the psychoanalytical discourse as they interpret the structure of symbolic language.

As such, the reader (you), who begins to recognize their desire is, in reality, their (your) desire for the recognition of desire as such. Without desire, one would not be able to recognize desire which grants the possibility of psychoanalysis, or any forms of discourse (i.e. science, philosophy and the desire for “truth”). Therefore, we can say that to psychoanalyze is to “desire desire desire”: to desire the intricacies of desire and how it desires an object. The act of speaking and writing is a form of desire (i.e. to communicate, pass on knowledge and relate to “others”). The paradox that we will see is how the desire to speak and write—the desire to articulate symbolic language is a form of repression, and therefore the symptom of the unconscious mind.  

Today, I will use everyday examples to talk about split subjectivity and some of the relationships between the “Ideal-Ego” and “Ego-Ideal” that is established in Lacan’s “mirror stage”. I will also introduce Lacan’s famous “Schema L” diagram and discuss some of its contents as this post progresses. Although I tried to tailor this post towards general audience, I think it might be more difficult than some of my other writings on Lacan.

There is a part II and part III of my writings on psychoanalysis.
Part II talks about Lacan’s famous “Graph of Desire” which can be found here.
Part III talks about love and the limits of human knowledge found here.

Last edited: January 9, 2020. Revised some of the paragraphs and clarified some sentences.


The Borromean Knot

When the baby is born, the first thing they encounter is the “Real” which consists of chaotic fragments that surrounds them. The mother is the first figure who takes position of the “Other” (super-ego), where the child tries to figure out what it is that she wants with all the gestures that she makes (“what does the (m)Other want?”). When the infant reach 18 months, they begin to not only recognize themselves in the mirror as “me”, but as the “other” person (“the other person in the mirror is me!”). During this time, the infant develops the “Imaginary” through the recognition of themselves in the mirror which constitutes the “Ideal-Ego” (ego = “I”)But as the child gets older, not only do they establish themselves in relation with their imaginary Ideal-Ego (this image I see in the mirror is who I am—as ideality), but in relationship with other people—namely, his/her relation with their parents. This “Symbolic” relation with others which consists of the dimensions of the social, law and language, is what constitutes the “Ego-Ideal”.

It is through the child’s relationship with others where they develop the symbolic ego-ideal. As they establish their relationship with others, they begin to learn what they can and cannot do (i.e. the parents will say they cannot eat this or that, they must follow house rules, etc.). The child must give up certain parts of what they conceived as their imaginary ideal-ego in order to enter the symbolic, which revolves around relationships with other people. This “giving up” of self is what Lacan calls the “split subject” (or “barred subject”, often represented as “S” with a line crossed through it). It is like starting a new job and learning all the policies of the company where the subject is forced into certain structural relations with others (co-workers, boss, etc.) while repressing their unfulfilled desires into the unconscious (i.e. to establish work etiquette; they cannot do this or that while working, etc.). Another example might be to think of a time where we desired to say something that would offend another person, but we end up not saying it because of the disapproval by social etiquette and others.

The symbolic is like a filter where the ideal-ego must pass through to create the split subject. This filter gets to “choose” and pick what part of the subject is acceptable when they engage with other people in society. In fact, the symbolic, as we will later see, is what constitutes subjectivity. In order to establish social relationship with other people, the infant is forced to give up on certain pleasures that they always had, such as certain relationships with their mother (i.e. sucking on mother’s breast, etc.). By “giving up” on such relations, they are repressing these thoughts into their unconscious. This is why the Other is always a woman, since the desire for the Mother is the first thing that gets repressed into the unconscious. The subject’s symbolic relations with other people is a relationship with their own Other (repressed unconscious desires) which—if one traces far enough—goes all the way back to the mother. As the child gets older, they move from the ideal-ego towards the ego-ideal, who gives up parts of themselves in order to enter the symbolic which shapes the split subject (i.e. they enter and participate in the laws of society). This occurance sets out the movement from the imaginary ideal-ego: my ideal self that I see in the mirror as perfection; to the symbolic ego-ideal: once I consider my relationship with others, I am not the ideal human being that I imagined myself to be, since such ideality can only be determined through the agreement with others. 

We can recognize the split subject in Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” where he famously analyzes Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short story called, “The Purloined Letter”. In the narrative, a secret letter is stolen from the Queen by the Minister, which in turn is stolen by the detective. The letter which was stolen twice goes through three characters who had already established their relationship with each other and developed their split subjectivity. This letter gets stolen when the Other (person) is not looking. While the Queen turns her back, the Minister steals it, and as the Minister turns his back, the detective purloins it. The point is to emphasize on the way the subjects / characters are constituted through their relationship with others as they avoid the symbolic Other from seeing them steal the letter (breaking the Law). We will return to this later on.

Taking all of these pedagogical examples in mind, we now understand the fundamentals of split subjectivity. Just like our relationship with other people, the structure of language also consists of rules and laws (i.e. grammar, syntax, lexicon, etc.) where the subject is forced into its system to create the ego-ideal. Instead of social structures or relations with others, we also have the system of language which also functions like a filter. Therefore, since certain aspects of the subject’s ideal-ego are given up as they articulate language, what is given up on becomes the “lack” within language. It is through the splitting of the subject (or giving up) where language forms. Thus, where there is language, there is also the lack of language—i.e. a “negative” side to language, a “-1”. There is something in language that is missing / given up on from splitting the subject. When the subject speaks, parts of their ego appears as language, and the repressed material goes missing. All of this happens unconsciously without the subject’s awareness. In other words, the ego which can be recognized through language is the symptom of the split subject because it is a filter of the ideal-ego into the ego as such. In this sense, one can think of how our entire society functions as the symptom. Civilization is created through the splitting of the subject. One can say that the biggest symptom is society itself (we are basically a bunch of talking animals).

This filtering, splitting, or “giving up” that we have been talking about is formally known as “castration complex” (or in Freudian terms as the “Oedipus Complex”—there are significant differences between Lacan and Freud’s version of castration). It is also this relationship between the split subject and the unconscious ways they interact with their lack which constitutes the experience of anxiety. For Lacan, castration is the symbolic lack of the imaginary signifier. To be sure, the mirror stage does not only occur during childhood, but continues until death. Hence, castration is never complete. The splitting of the subject always takes place every time we engage with symbolic language or society—which is pretty much all the time in our daily lives. The symbolic language becomes the symptom of castration because it takes the place of what lacks / repressed. Language is the symptom of the Other’s desire—of what we truly desire by concealing this lack within its own system (i.e. speech / writing). And of course, if we ask Freud what the split subject really desires, he would tell us that we unconsciously desire our mother. Within the Freudian discourse, the prohibition of incest is the first symbolic law that is imposed on us.

Lacan says, “it is not man who constitutes language, but language that constitutes man”. It is through what has been repressed / given up on within language which not only marks the field of the Other (unconscious), but determines how the split subject interprets and situates themselves within the language before them—such as how you are reading this text. Lacan points out, “I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object”. In other words, the relationship with our own lack / repressed desires influences the way we interpret and articulate speech or written objects—just like the objects and people around us in reality. The split subject (you) are forced into this text (discourse) as you read it (you are filtered and split through this text). What gets repressed in the unconscious will unknowingly reveal itself through language which functions as the symptom of repression (i.e. the meaning you extract from this text). When we speak / write, one is speaking about their own repressions. Lack is what constitutes the split subject altogether—namely, subjectivity (or ego).

The most confusing part is that, once the subject gets split and filtered through the symbolic, their relationship with their own lack and repressed desires can only be imagined and recognized through the ego, which is witnessed as a language after the subject had already split. This is why Lacan famously said that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. The ego (i.e. subjectivity) is the symptom of the unconscious which reveals itself through language. The desires which had been repressed into the unconscious Other can only be imagined, but never accessed through consciousness (it is called “unconscious” simply because we are never aware of it). As seen in Lacan’s “Schema L” diagram, the subject’s relations (S) with “other” people (remember: “the other person is me!”) is in close relation with their own imaginary ego (“me!”; “I”) which has been split and influenced by the Other (the lack / repressed desires). A simple example is to think of how we relate to “others” when we have a conversation with them. If I wish to connect with someone, I must find ways to relate to their experiences with my own. This relationship that the subject establishes with the other is actually a relationship with their own imaginary ego (i.e. their own experiences) which functions as a symptom that is associated with the Other.


Schema L

Since it is lack which constitutes subjectivity, one of the main goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to figure out this missing part through the subject’s relationship with the symbolic. We can see this with the popular example from Slavoj Zizek’s joke about a guy who walks into a restaurant and asks: “Coffee without cream please.”, the waiter responds: “I am sorry sir, we are out of cream, could it be without milk?”. The gist of the joke is to emphasize on the word, “without”. Here, we have the symbolic signifier, “without” (as you read it), which symbolically signifies an imaginary “without” that is missing from its signification. What is missing (milk or cream) in the coffee constitutes the coffee and changes how the subject perceives it. It is like drinking distilled water without knowing someone spat in it. But once you realize it, your entire perception of the cup of water changes. On one hand, to articulate the word “without” is to refer to something missing. On the other hand, the moment the word “without” gets articulated through language, it is no longer “without”, since it becomes the symbolic signifier that represents something that is “without”. The word “without” functions like a metonymy for another missing signifier. This is why in Alenka Zupancic’s book, What is Sex?, she refers “without” as “with-without”: the coffee without cream / milk will always include a “without”—namely, a lack which constitutes it. It is the missing spit in the water that constitutes the water, not the cleanliness of distilled water.

In the same way, the split subject and their articulation of speech always includes a lack which constitutes them. This unconscious lack (repressed desires, sublimation, etc.) structures the “other side” of the split subject and is famously associated with what Lacan calls, “objet petit a” (object little a), or the “object cause of desire”, insofar that the subject desires such lack, whatever it might be (i.e. when the subject desires what they have repressed in their unconscious). Object “a” is not the object of desire, but an elusive phantom object that unconsciously causes the conscious subject to desire for the object. For example, a man is dating a woman who functions as his object of desire, even when what is unconsciously causing him to desire this woman is due to how he is unconsciously in love with himself and he is unknowingly associating various signs of her with himself (narcissism) [or, we can use the classic Freudian example where we all unconsciously desire our mother]. The point is that the split subject’s desire is the Other’s desire—it is the unconscious super ego’s desire. This is one of the reasons why the psychoanalyst sits behind / out of sight of the patient during a therapy session. The analyst functions as object as the patient free associates and desires (a) to figure out their ego which appears as their symptom (in Schema L, notice how the ego is placed in brackets beside object a).

Nevertheless. it is this lack which allows for the possibility of Rene Descartes’ famous line: “I think therefore I am”. But since the symbolic paradoxically conceals the subject’s repressed desires by splitting the subject, Lacan famously says the opposite:

“I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking . . . I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking.” (Ecrits, 430).

The symbolic language filters the subject’s ideal-ego by forcing it to split while governing its subjectivity (i.e. what is allowed to pass through language and the law). Therefore, the subject who appears through symbolic language is not who the subject really is. Instead, it is through what is missing within language (repressed desires in unconscious, or desires that had been sublimated / diverted) which constitutes the subject. Once you become familiar with all the policies at your new job, you are defined by the company or institution (symbolic) that you work for—which we all know is not who you really are. Or, when the job interviewer requests you to, “Tell me about yourself”, you respond with, “I am XYZ and I think this contributes to the current job position that I am seeking”. Many of us are aware of how “fake” these interviews are because we filter our language and say things in certain ways in order to get the job. Only that in our psychic lives, we unknowingly do this all the time through our relationship with the symbolic (i.e. the rules in language and the laws of society).

In the same way, your subjectivity is represented by the structure of language as who you are (“I am Y”)—which isn’t who you really are. Yet paradoxically, language is the only way to articulate who you are. This is why, in The Title of the Letter, Lacan’s split subject is what Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe famously refer as, “the impossible subject”. The subject is forced into the symbolic within the field of the Other. On one hand, to articulate language is to produce subjectivity and set out a communicative discourse and relation with other people (i.e. to tell people who you are, obey laws like everyone else, etc.). On the other hand, the subjectivity / ego produced through language becomes the symptom of repressed desires: who you are via the articulation of symbolic language is not who you really are, but the product of a subjectivity that is “not-whole”. Ironically, we can even see this when the subject goes to see a psychologist who begins to categorize them via tests because you fit into the criteria of A, B or C. By doing this, they are forcing the subject into various symbolic structures.

This concealment of the lack in language can be seen in Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, where the contents of the stolen letter were never revealed. The entire narrative (such as its written signifying words) circulates around the missing information of the letter—namely, its lack. The stolen letter functions as the signifier of the lack of signifier (just like “coffee without cream”). For Lacan, the reader’s experience as the split subject is exemplified by reading Poe’s story. I highly recommend you to read and experience it yourself (i.e. notice how as you read the story, your consciousness of the narrative circulates around this letter as the empty signifier like a vortex). In fact, Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” was so important that it was placed out of chronological order as the first essay in his one and only published book titled, Ecrits (“writings”). Consequently, this out of chronological placement lead to a sharp response by Jacques Derrida in a famous essay / lecture called “For the Love of Lacan!”, which was published in Resistances of Psychoanalysis (also see Derrida’s, “The Purveyor of Truth”).

As we now know, the ideal-ego gives up parts of itself to establish social relationship with others and repress their unfulfilled desires, which becomes the symptom via languageThis is one of the reasons why desire can never be satisfied. The “thing” (“das Ding”; lack) we desire will always be missing because it is repressed and concealed by symbolic language and/or within any objects that takes position as the subject’s unconscious desire. This missing thing (lack) which functions as the “objet petit a”, traces back to the desire for the mother who must be given up on in order to enter the symbolic (like what Freud would say). Language which takes the place of the phantom object a, becomes the symptom of this lack. We can see this through the articulation of every word in this sentence (i.e. there is an unconscious reason as to why I desire to explain Lacanian psychoanalysis to you). In Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, Lacan multiplies his borromean knot into “the ring of string” to show how the moment lack (i.e. repressed desires, sublimations, etc.) reveals itself within a signifying word, another signifier would immediately conceal it by articulating the next word in the sentence. As a result, this makes the former lack no longer lacking. Every “positive” signifying word is carried out by a “negative” lack (-1) that is linked to another “positive” word from the beginning to the end of every sentence. This is where Lacan deviates from the traditional approach to clinical psychoanalytical methods, which had always revolved around the patient who lies on the couch to free associate their thoughts via speech for 50 minutes. Lacan infamously invented the “variable sessions” where he would sometimes abruptly end his patient’s sessions in an attempt to make the “cut” and interrupt their signifying chain as a method for diagnosis. If I remember correctly, this is one of the main reasons why Lacan was infamously “excommunicated” (banned) from the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA).

With everything considered, we now understand the reason why Lacan was against ego psychology where it focused on reinforcing an ego that is “not-whole” (I purposely used the term “not-whole” to allude to Lacan’s ideas on sexual difference that is inscribed into the way the subject interacts with language; how the subject gets unconsciously split / castrated determines sexual difference). The more ego-psychologists enforces the ego which has been alienated from the Other’s desires, the stronger this alienation becomes. Subjectivity is the wound / symptom that is created through its relationship with the symbolic Other (i.e. a relationship with what the subject had given up on / repressed). It is through this wound where we recognize the unconscious mind and our subjectivity of existence. You cannot heal this wound.

“…Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is, there wouldn’t even be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack.” —–Jacques Lacan