of you may recall that this conception originated in a feature of human
behavior illuminated by a fact of comparative psychology. The child, at
an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee
in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such
his own image in a mirror. This recognition is indicated in the illuminative
mimicry of the Aha-Erlebnis, which Kohler sees as the expression of situational
apperception, an essential stage of the act of intelligence.
This act, far from exhausting itself, as in the case of the monkey, once
the image has been mastered and found empty, immediately rebounds in the
case of the child in a series of gestures in which he experiences in play
the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected
environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates
--the child's own body, and the persons and things around him.
This event can
take place, as we have known since Baldwin, from the age of six months,
and its repetition has often made me reflect upon the startling spectacle
of the infant in front of the mirror. Unable as yet to walk, or even
to stand up, and held tightly as he is by some support, human or artificial
(what, in France, we call a 'trotte-bebe'), he nevertheless overcomes,
in a flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support and,
fixing his attitude I a slightly leaning-forward position, in order
to hold it in his gaze, brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image.
For me, this activity retains the meaning I have given it up to the
age of eighteen months. This meaning discloses a libidinal dynamism,
which has hitherto remained problematic, as well as an ontological structure
of the human world that accords with my reflections on paranoiac knowledge.
We have only to
understand the mirror stage as an identification , in the full sense
that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes
place in the subject when he assumes an image - whose predestination
to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic
theory, of the ancient term imago.
This jubilant assumption
of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in
his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit
in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated
in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification
with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal,
its function as subject.
This form would have to be called the Ideal-I.(1) But the important
point is that this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social
determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible
for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being
of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical
syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own
The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates
in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt
[an image of a whole], that is to say, in an exteriority in which this
form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it
appears to him above all in a contrasting size that fixes it and in
a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements
that the subject feels are animating him. Thus, this Gestalt -- whose
pregnancy should be regarded as bound up with the species, though its
motor style remains scarcely recognizable - by these two aspects of
its appearance, symbolizes the mental permanence of the I, at the same
time as it prefigures its alienating destination; it is still pregnant
with the correspondences that unite the I with the statue in which man
projects himself, with the phantoms that
dominate him, or with the automation in which, in an ambiguous relation,
the world of his own making tends to find completion.
Indeed, for he imagos-whose veiled faces it is our privilege to see
in our daily experience and in the penumbra of symbolic efficacity(2)
-the mirror-image would seem to be the threshold of the visible world,
if we go by the mirror disposition that the imago of one's own body
presents in hallucinations or dreams, whether it concerns its individual
features, or even its infirmities, or its object-projections; or if
we observe the role of the mirror apparatus in the appearances of the
double, in which the psychical realities, however heterogeneous, are
That a Gestalt should be capable of formative effects in the organism
is attested by a piece of biological experimentation that is itself
so alien to the idea of psychical causality that it cannot bring itself
to formulate its results in these terms. It nevertheless recognizes
that it is a necessary condition for the maturation of the gonad of
the female pigeon that it should see another member of its species,
of either sex: so sufficient in itself is this condition that the desired
effect may be obtained merely by placing the individual [pigeon] within
reach of the field of reflection of a mirror. Similarly, in the case
of the migratory locust, the transition within a generation from the
solitary to the gregarious form can be obtained by exposing the individual,
at a certain stage, to the exclusively visual action of a similar image,
provided it is animated by movements of a style sufficiently close to
that characteristic of the species. Such facts are inscribed in an order
of homeomorphic identification that would itself fall within the larger
question of the meaning of beauty as both formative and erogenic.
But the fact of mimicry are no less instructive when conceived as cases
of heteromorphic identification, in as much as they raise the problem
of the signification of space for the living organism - psychological
concepts hardly seem less appropriate for shedding light on these matters
than ridiculous attempts to reduce them to the supposedly supreme law
of adaptation. We have only to recall how Roger Caillois (who was then
very young, and still fresh from his breach with the sociological school
in which he was trained) illuminated the subject by using the term 'legendary
psychasthenia' to classify morphological mimicry as an obsession with
space in its derealizing effect.
I have myself shown in the social dialectic that structures human knowledge
as paranoiac(3) why human knowledge has greater autonomy than animal
knowledge in relation to the field of force4 of desire, but also why
human knowledge is determine in that 'little reality' (ce peu de réalité,
which the Surrealists,
in the restless way, saw as its limitation. These reflections lead me
to recognize in the spatial capitation manifested in the mirror-stage,
even before the social dialectic, the effect in man of an organic insufficiency
in his natural reality-in so far as any meaning can be given to the
I am led, therefore, to regard the function of the mirror-stage as a
particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish
a relation between the organism and its reality - or, as they say, between
the Innenwelt and the Umwelt .
In man, however, this relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence
at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs
of uneasiness and motor uncoordination of the neo-natal months. The
objective notion of the anatomical incompleteness and likewise the presence
of certain humoral residues of the maternal organism confirm the view
I have formulated as the fact of a real specific prematurity of birth
It is worth noting, incidentally, that this is in fact recognized as
such by embryologists, by the term foetalization, which determines the
prevalence of the so-called superior apparatus of the neurax, and especially
of the cortex, which psycho-surgical operations lead us to regard as
the intra-organic mirror.
This development is experienced as a temporal dialectic that decisively
projects the formation of the individual into history. The mirror stage
is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency
to anticipation - and which manufactures for the subject, caught up
in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies
that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality
that I shall call orthopaedic - and, lastly, to the assumption of the
armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure
the subject's entire mental development. Thus, to break out of the circle
of the Innenwelt into the Umwelt generates the inexhaustible quadrature
of the ego's verifications.
This fragmented body - which terms I have also introduced into our system
of theoretical references - usually manifests itself in dreams when
the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive
disintegration in the individual. It then appears in the form of disjointed
limbs, or of those organs represented in exoscopy, growing wings and
taking up arms for intestinal persecutions - the very same that the
visionary Hieronymus Bosch has fixed, for all time, in painting, in
from the fifteenth century to the imaginary zenith of modern man. But
this form is even tangibly revealed at the organic level, in the lines
of 'fragilization' that define the anatomy of phantasy, as exhibited
in the schizoid and spasmodic symptoms of hysteria.
Correlatively, the formation of the I is symbolized in dreams by a fortress,
or a stadium - its inner arena and enclosure, surrounded by marshes
and rubbish-tips, dividing it into two opposed fields of contest where
the subject flounders in quest of the lefty, remote inner castle whose
form (sometimes juxtaposed in the same scenario) symbolizes the id in
a quite startling way. Similarly, on the mental plane, we find realized
the structures of fortified works, the metaphor of which arises spontaneously,
as if issuing from the symptoms themselves, to designate the mechanisms
of obsessional neurosis - inversion, isolation, reduplication, cancellation
But if we were to build on these subjective givens alone - however little
we free them from the condition of experience that makes us see them
as partaking of the nature of a linguistic technique - our theoretical
attempts would remain exposed to the charge of projecting themselves
into the unthinkable of an absolute subject. This is why I have sought
in the present hypothesis, grounded in a conjunction of objective data,
the guiding grid for a method of symbolic reduction.
It establishes in the defenses of the ego a genetic order, in accordance
with the wish formulated by Miss Anna Freud, in the first part of her
great work, and situates (as against a frequently expressed prejudice)
hysterical repression and its returns at a more archaic stage than obsessional
inversion and its isolating processes, and the latter in turn as preliminary
to paranoiac alienation, which dates from the deflection of the specular
I into the social I.
This moment in which the mirror stage comes to an end inaugurates by
the identification with the imago of the counterpart and the drama of
primordial jealousy (so well brought out by the school of Charlotte
Bühler in the phenomenon of infantile transitivism), the dialectic
that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations.
It is this moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge
into mediatization through the desire of the other, constitutes its
objects in an abstract equivalence by the co-operation of others, and
turns the I into that apparatus for which every instinctual thrust constitutes
a danger, even though it should correspond to a natural maturation -
the very normalization of this maturation being henceforth dependent,
man, on a cultural mediation as exemplified, in the case of the sexual
object, by the Oedipus complex.
In the light of this conception, the term primary narcissism, by which
analytic doctrine designates the libidinal investment characteristic
of that moment, reveals in those who invented it the most profound awareness
of semantic latencies. But it also throws light on the dymnamic opposition
between this libido and the sexual libido, which the first analysts
tried to define when they invoked destructive and, indeed, death instincts,
in order to explain the evident connection between the narcissistic
libido and the alienating function of the I< the aggressivity it
releases in any relation to the other, even in a relation involving
the most Samaritan of aid.
In fact, they were
encountering that existential negativity whose reality is so vigorously
proclaimed by the contemporary philosophy of being and nothingness.
that philosophy grasps negativity only within the limits of a self-sufficiency
of consciousness, which as one of its premises, links to the meconnaissances
that constitute the ego, the illusion of autonomy to which it entrusts
itself. This flight of fancy, for all that it draws, to an unusual extent,
on borrowings from psychoanalytic experience, culminates in the pretention
of providing an existential psychoanalysis.
At the culmination
of the historical effort of a society to refuse to recognize that it
has any function other than the utilitarian one, and in the anxiety
of the individual confronting the 'concentrational'(4) form of the social
bond that seems to arise to crown this effort, existentialism must be
judged by the explanations it gives of the subjective impasses that
have indeed resulted from it; a freedom that is never more authentic
than when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment,
expressing the impotence of a pure consciousness to master any situation;
a voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of the sexual relation; a personality
that realizes itself only in suicide; a consciousness of the other that
can be satisfied only by Hegelian murder.
are opposed by all our experience, in so far as it teaches us not to
regard the ego as centred on the perception-consciousness system, or
as organized by the 'reality principle'-a principle that is the expression
of a scientific prejucdice most hostile to the dialectic of knowledge.
Our experience shows that we should start instead from the function
of méconnaissance that characterizes the ego in all its structures,
so markedly articulated by Miss Anna Freud. For, if the Verneinung
represents the patent form of that function, its effects will, for the
most part, remain latent, so long as they are not illuminated by some
light refledcted on to the level of fatality, which is where the id
We can thus understand the inertia characteristic of the formations
of the I, and find there the most extensive definition of neurosis -
just as the captation of the subject by the situation gives us the most
general formula for madness, not only the madness that lies behind the
walls of asylums, but also the madness that deafens the world with its
sound and fury.
The sufferings of neurosis and psychosis are for us a schooling in the
passions of the soul, just as the beam of the psychoanalytic scales,
when we calculate the tilt of its threat to entire communities, provides
us with an indication of the deadening of the passions in society.
At this junction of nature and culture, so persistently examined by
modern anthropology, psychoanalysis alone recognizes this knot of imaginary
servitude that love must always undo again, or sever.
For such a task, we place no trust in altruistic feeling, we who lay
bare the aggressivity that underlies the activity of the philanthropist,
the idealist, the pedagogue, and even the reformer.
In the recourse of subject to subject that we preserver, psychoanalysis
may accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of the "Thous art
that." in which is revealed to him the cipher of his mortal destiny,
but it is not in our mere power as practitioners to bring him to that
point where the real journey beings.
1. Throughout this
article I leve in its peculiarity the translation I have adopted for
Freud's Ideal-Ich [i.e., 'je-idéal], without further comment,
other than to say that I have not maintained it since.
2. Cf. Claude Lévi-Strauss,
Structural Anthropology, Chapter X.
3. Cf. "Aggressivity
in Psychoanalysis," p. 8 and Ecrits, p. 180.
an adjective coined after World War II (this article was written in
1949) to describe the life of the concentration-camp. In the hands of
certain writers it became, by extension, applicable to many aspects
of 'modern' life [Tr.].