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The Mirror Stage: A Critical Reflection

  • Michael Grant

Abstract

The high reputation Lacan’s thought still enjoys in Humanities departments, both in Britain and elsewhere, is, so Tallis argues, in this reading from Not Saussure (1988, 1995), to be attributed to the fact that those trained in the interpretation of literature (and, one might add, of cinema) have little or no knowledge of scientific method and a less than rudimentary grasp of clinical practice. None the less, it is no good trying to refute Lacan’s ideas, since one will seek in vain for the systematic observations on which his conclusions are based. For example, there is little reference to clinical material of his own, which means that his interpretations of his own cases cannot be assessed since insufficient material is given. For Tallis, then, Lacan is a prime example of how not to proceed in diagnostic medicine. He reinforces this view by a detailed account of Lacan’s presentation of the so-called mirror stage. This is supposedly the period in infant development between six and eighteen months during which a unified sense of the self, of one’s personal identity, is formed and established. Lacan’s account of the self has had enormous importance for literary theory; in particular, it has been widely used to justify the notion that referential realism is impossible. The realities of self and world are thought to be composed of fictions that belong solely within the symbolic realm, closed off from any contact with what might lie beyond language. However, as Tallis shows, Lacan’s theory assumes that which it sets out to explain. Lacan tries to establish that the child’s sense of self is mediated through an identification with his or her own mirror image, and his argument is based on a series of dialectical shifts between self and Other. But, to pull this off, Lacan begins with the assumption he needs to establish, namely, that the child can recognise his or her own image in the mirror. Furthermore, Lacan never explains how, if the self is a fiction, the child is able to refer so many different images of its own body to the same self. These and other objections reveal the fundamental nonsense that Lacan’s account succumbs to. It is a nonsense Tallis links to the muddles associated with some versions of genetic epistemology — the process of describing how the child comes to acquire the adult metaphysical world-view. This is to do descriptive psychology and ontology at the same time, and the result is confusion of the sort we find in Lacan.

Keywords

Critical Reflection Literary Theory Infant Development Oedipus Complex World Picture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Jacques Lacan, Écrits, selected and trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977). The translations are Sheridan’s.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Colin MacCabe (ed.), The Talking Cure (London: Macmillan, 1981).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, ‘The Magnetism between Reader and Text: Prolegomena to a Lacanian Poetics’, Poetics (December 1984) pp. 381–406.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, trans. David Macey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Malcolm Bowie ‘Jacques Lacan’, in J. Sturrock (ed.), Structuralism and Since (Oxford University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Lacan, ‘Les formations de l’inconscient’, Bulletin de Psychologie (1956–7); quoted in Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, p. 83.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Lacan is, of course, wrong about chimpanzees. They are also fascinated by their mirror images. A recent book on Lacan (Bice Benvenuto and Roger Kennedy, The Works of Jacques Lacan (London: Free Association Books, 1986)) quotes Köhler’s account of the behaviour of chimpanzees presented with a mirror.Google Scholar
  10. (W. Kohler The Mentality of Apes, trans. E. Winter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957); quoted in Benvenuto and Kennedy, p. 53)Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    see P.F. Strawson, Individuals (London: Methuen, 1959).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 30.
    R. Jakobson, Shifters, Verbal Categories and the Russian Verb (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).Google Scholar
  13. 46.
    Margaret Boden, Piaget (London: Fontana, 1977) p. 96.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Raymond Tallis 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Grant
    • 1
  1. 1.Rutherford CollegeThe University of KentCanterburyUK

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