Project: The Mirror Phase.

  1. OCA Introduction
  • Lacan introduced the mirror phase as important to a child’s understanding of who it is.
  • At a particular age a child can recognise himself in a mirror and see this as being a ‘self’
  • But, the child knows he is truly himself, so the image set’s up a confusion- who am I?
  • Lacan’s ‘body as gestalt’ refers to this confusion – with respect to what is body and what is ground…. explains the figure/ground idea.


When the child contrasts what it sees in the mirror with its ideal self  it sees that it is imperfect and this brings with it a feeling that it must attain an ‘unattainable ideal’.  Both advertising and broadcast media use the Lacanian ideas of the image when they show us images onto which we are invited to project ourselves (Haveland, 2009 p. 71).


text: The mirror phase as formative of the function of the I      (by Jacques Lacan)

  • The mirror phase ‘sheds light’ on the ‘I’ as it relates to psychology
  • Lacan begins with a child who at a certain age, around six months, recognises his image in the mirror
  • He can’t yet walk or stand, but can transfix his gaze on his reflection.
  • This phase lasts until around 18 months.

(Lacan, 2003, p.620)

  • This phase seems to Lacan to objectify a ‘primordial’ I, different to that I which defines itself via ‘the other’, and that I which follows when language is attained.
  • This form is the ‘ideal I’ and represents the ego defined by a sort of fiction, rather than as it is later-through social concerns. This fictional ideal form will always remain unobtainable for the individual.

The body as gestalt

  • So the subjects idealised form is given to him in an exterior image, but also one which is of a different size and inverted with respect to the real self.
  • gestalt defn: something in which the total is more than the sum of all its parts (Cambridge dictionary, 2017)
  • This gestalt I both defines the subject but also alienates it (through inversion/size difference) as man seems alienated by statues, phantoms, and automatons- with which it also seems to be surrounded.

 This is quite difficult writing to understand

 Lacan discusses a biological situation/experiment where the full pigeon cannot grow (in this case it’s ovary) unless it sees another pigeon – and it’s own reflection is sufficient. This suggests that the ‘whole’ requires more than just the one pigeon…it requires additional images….. which may be the gestalt element of this example….

(Lacan, 2003, p.621)

  • Lacan seems to suggest that man has shown in ‘the social dialectic’, that he often thinks in a way that is different to reality… the surrealists…. And that the mirror phase is like a ‘spatial ensnarement’ and is a prefigurement of the importance that a lack of reality may have in defining who we are….
  • Lacan states ….‘we are therefore led to regard the function of the mirror-phase as a particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish a relation of the organism to its reality..’
  • This development changes through time, and includes ‘insufficiency’ , ‘anticipation’, and ( similar to the spatial fragmentation idea) ‘phantasies’ (whose root means ‘a making visible’) such as body-image problems and ‘alienating identity’
  • He seems to suggest that within this mirror stage lies the beginnings of all man’s psychological problems…..

The fragmented body

  •  The ‘fragmented body’ is common in dreams, when the body may be broken up, or bits sprout wings (like in Bosch paintings, or in the fractured personality of phantasy or hysteria)
  • In dreams the I is often pictured as a fortified castle, and it’s surrounded by a battlefield of difficulties. The id is like the inner castle- the safety, and the subject tries to reach it in safety
  • Similarly in mental life the neuroses of ‘inversion,, isolation, reduplication, cancellation and displacement’ are like the fortifications around the safety of the castle.

(Lacan, 2003, p.622)

  • Lacan warns that the idea needs to be grounded in experience and objectivity and this is established as ‘defence of the ego’. Various stages of the building up of the I are associated with different neuroses…
  • The mirror phase ends when the identification of the image in the mirror is ended by the development of the I through a social setting, and here all man’s knowledge is built around the desire for others and by maturation of bodily drives – which come under the pressure of social systems/order.
  • There seems also to be at this stage a libido which is driven toward destruction and death (Freud’s death instinct?) – this was probably the existential idea of ‘being and nothingness’


  • But existentialism is not quite the same-and existential analysis is not the same either (the writing here is particular difficult to fathom), as it’s aims are simply a lack of freedom, lack of personal power, suicide and murder…….

(Lacan, 2003, p.623)

  • Sufferings and neurosis are linked closely to the soul

(Lacan,2003, p.624)

This text was very difficult to decipher. The wording is very difficult to understand, and is not clear. I do believe that a large proportion of this is likely due to the time at which this was written- when the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge through clear prose was not prioritised. In contrast the philosopher, Peter Singer in his latest book, suggests that that although some philosopher colleagues still use  difficult language to explain difficult ideas, he believes that even the most difficult ideas, if they are of any value, should be translatable into simple words (Singer, 2017) . I tend to agree with this view.

I did some further reading around the subject of the mirror phase to solidify my understanding….


Text:  The subject- by Kaja Silverman

Lacan’s writing is famously remote, and his terms often shift meaning (see my paragraph above). The mirror stage is part of the imaginary order, preceding the ‘symbolic order’.

(Silverman, 1999 p.340)

  • Between 6-8 months the child’s view of itself in the mirror prompts an understanding of itself as other
  • The reflection is in some way more ideal than the self, and is the ideal self.
  • The child is thus alienated from himself as he can never fully know this image.
  • This image is similar to other items that he identifies with but are not self- eg. the mother, her breast etc…..
  • The child ambivalently likes the ideal image but also hates it because he is alienated from it. This ambivalence between binary oppositions characterises the imaginary order completely.
  • Images play an important role in the imaginary phase- making the visual image of film (and photography?) interesting in this respect.

(Silverman,1999, p. 344)

  • There is a link between the mirror phase and the later symbolic oedipal stage- they involve the child viewing another ideal subject and feeling ambivalence towards them. In fact the imaginary phase continues alongside the symbolic one, both of them shaping our characters.
  • The idea of the ‘ideal’ image during the mirror stage suggests that there is some cultural and values influence even here……
  • So the child is influenced early on by cultural matters… eg mum’s influence, the sorts of toys it plays with etc……
  • The child breaks out of the imaginary (ambivalent stage) stage through language, and into the symbolic stage.

(Silverman, 1999, p. 345)



Cambridge dictionary, (2017) Gestalt- a definition.  (website) at URL (accessed 12 July 2017)

Silverman , K (1999). ‘The subject’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p. 340-355

Haveland, P. (2009)  Visual Studies 1 Understanding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts. P.71-71

Lacan, J. (2003) ‘The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I’    In  Harrison, C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p.320-324.

Singer. P (2017)  Ethics in the real world (audiobook) at URL  (accessed 12 July 2017)






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