'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," (parapraxis) jokes, and the interpretation of dreams all emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution. In "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud," he argues that "the unconscious is structured like a language." The unconscious is not a primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, he explained, but rather a formation as complex and structurally-sophisticated as consciousness itself. One consequence of the unconscious being structured like a language is that the self is denied any point of reference to which to be "restored" following trauma or a crisis of identity.
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 1950s, he came to regard the mirror stage as more than a moment in the life of the infant; instead, it formed part of the permanent structure of subjectivity. In "the Imaginary order," his or her own image permanently catches and captivates the subject. Lacan explains that "the 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".
As this concept developed further, the stress fell less on its historical value and more on its structural value. 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 a conflict between one's perceived visual appearance and one's emotional experience. This identification is what Lacan called alienation. At six months, the baby still lacks physical co-ordination. The child is able to recognize himself or herself in a mirror prior to the attainment of control over his or her bodily movements. The child sees his or her image as a whole and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the lack of co-ordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. The child experiences this contrast initially as a rivalry with his or her own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens the child with fragmentation—thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the child identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart forms the Ego. Lacan understands this moment of identification as a moment of jubilation, since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery; yet when the child compares his or her own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother, a depressive reaction may accompany the jubilation.
Lacan calls the specular image "orthopaedic," since it leads the child to anticipate the overcoming of its "real specific prematurity of birth." The vision of the body as integrated and contained, in opposition to the child's actual experience of motor incapacity and the sense of his or her body as fragmented, induces a movement from "insufficiency to anticipation." In other words, the mirror image initiates and then aids, like a crutch, the process of the formation of an integrated sense of self.
In the mirror stage a "misunderstanding" (méconnaissance) constitutes the Ego—the "me" (moi) becomes alienated from itself through the introduction of an imaginary dimension to the subject. The mirror stage also has a significant symbolic dimension, due to the presence of the figure of the adult who carries the infant. Having jubilantly assumed the image as his or her own, the child turns his or her head towards this adult, who represents the big Other, as if to call on the adult to ratify this image.
While Freud uses the term "other", referring to der Andere (the other person) and "das Andere" (otherness), under the influence of Alexandre Kojève, Lacan's use is closer to Hegel's.
Lacan often used an algebraic symbology for his concepts: 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, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other." Dylan Evans (1995) explains that:
"1. The little other is the other who is not really other, but a reflection and projection of the Ego. He [autre] is simultaneously the counterpart and the specular image. The little other is thus entirely inscribed in the imaginary order.
2. The big Other designates radical alterity, an other-ness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the order of the symbolic. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is thus both another subject, in his radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness, and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject."
"The Other must first of all be considered a locus," Lacan writes, "the locus in which speech is constituted". We can speak of the Other as a subject in a secondary sense only when a subject occupies this position and thereby embodies the Other for another subject.
In arguing that speech originates not in the Ego nor in the subject but rather in the Other, Lacan stresses that speech and language are beyond the subject's conscious control. They come from another place, outside of consciousness—"the unconscious is the discourse of the Other." When conceiving the Other as a place, Lacan refers to Freud's concept of psychical 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," Dylan Evans explains, "it is she who receives the child's primitive cries and retroactively sanctions them as a particular message". The castration complex is formed when the child discovers that this Other is not complete because 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."
Feminists thinkers have both utilised and criticised Lacan's concepts of castration and the Phallus. Some feminists have argued that Lacan's phallocentric analysis provides a useful means of understanding gender biases and imposed roles, while other feminist critics, most notably Luce Irigaray, accuse Lacan of maintaining the sexist tradition in psychoanalysis. For Irigaray, the Phallus does not define a single axis of gender by its presence/absence; instead, gender has two positive poles. Like Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, in criticising Lacan's concept of castration, discusses the phallus in a chiasmus with the hymen, as both one and other. Other feminists, such as Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Jane Gallop, and Elizabeth Grosz, have interpreted Lacan's work as opening up new possibilities for feminist theory.
- The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis*, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968
- Écrits: A Selection*, transl. by Alan Sheridan, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977, and revised version, 2002, transl. by Bruce Fink
- Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, transl. by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
- The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
- The Seminar, Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953–1954,, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by J. Forrester, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988
- The Seminar, Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954–1955, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Sylvana Tomaselli, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988.
- The Seminar, Book III. The Psychoses, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1993.
- The Seminar, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Dennis Porter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992.
- The Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1977.
- The Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007.
- The Seminar XX, Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Bruce Fink, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.
- Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. Joan Copjec, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1990.