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  • Lacan versus Freud: Subverting the Enlightenment
  • Kay Stockholder

I. Smoke and Mirrors

The mirror stage for Jacques Lacan functions as a founding myth, analogous to and replacing Freud’s founding myth, elaborated in Totem and Taboo, of the band of brothers whose murder of the primal father condemns them to perpetual guilt. The first section of this paper will examine the philosophical agenda involved in Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage, visible in the logical gaps of this argument; the second will show the ways in which Lacan deploys this conception to rearrange the Freudian landscape; and the third will discuss how Lacan’s conception of language, integral to all his thought, is at odds not only with Freud’s conception, but entirely undermines Freud’s essentially Enlightment world views.

For both Lacan and Freud the founding myth involves circular reasoning, for the myth is posited to underwrite an already elaborated psychological theory. This circularity, however, is more crucially problematic for Lacan than it is for Freud. Freud’s myth is cast as a hypothetical historical extension of an otherwise free-standing psychological theory. One can totally reject Totem and Taboo without rejecting Freud’s arguments for the unconscious, infantile sexuality, and the Oedipus complex. In contrast, one cannot reject Lacan’s existential myth without calling into question the psychology that Lacan bases on its assumptions because the scientific claims of the mirror stage assume the truth of this foundational myth.

In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Lacan sketches a conception of the ontology and epistemology of the human psyche which [End Page 361] underlies his massive revision of Freudian thought. Though Lacan presents himself as recovering what he asserts as the “true” Freudian message from the distortions of North American ego psychology, and though commentators speak of the mirror stage as though it were a variation on Freud’s theory of narcissism, in fact Lacan’s theory subverts the enlightenment ideology upon which Freud’s work is based. Ultimately, the differences between Lacan’s mirror stage and Freud’s narcissism are paradigmatic of the differences between their theories of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the ego, id, and superego, of the Oedipus and castration complexes, the nature of therapy, and their understanding of man’s relation to language and culture. By redefining the key Freudian concepts, Lacan severs Freudian theory from its roots in Enlightenment rational individualism and deploys them to serve a version of pre-Enlightenment authoritarianism.

Most commentators on Lacan not only assume the truth of Lacan’s description of what children do when first confronted with their mirror images, but also accept Lacan’s assertion that the behavior he imputes to them betokens an absolute alienation of the inner being of the infant from the conscious sense of itself it later acquires as a being in the world. 1 Others’ claims for the importance of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage are not less sweeping than his own. Lacan rejects the Cartesian “cogito” by which Descartes asserted the validity of human reason, and returns to Descartes’ radically skeptical assumption that all experience is an illusion, thrown up by a deceiving God. Substituting a deceiving ego for a deceiving God, Lacan claims that the mirror stage reveals “the ontological structure of the human world,” in a way that “accords with my reflections on paranoiac knowledge (Lacan 1977, 2)” 2 For Lacan the ratiocinative self is a grotesque mask, behind which lurks the true subject, which is beyond thought. Though he claims to bring scientific proof to his project, he does not have in mind contemporary scientific endeavor, or what he calls the debased scientism of North America. Rather he invokes the Hegelian conception of wissenschaft in its widest sense of the systematic inquiry by which Hegel described the stages by which Geist, or the evolving human consciousness, [End Page 362] comes into being. It is from Hegel that Lacan gets his conception that the subject finds herself only in confrontation with others, or the Other, that is constituted by the external world. For Hegel, consciousness develops by oppositions, so that the master/slave opposition cannot be overcome...

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pp. 361-422
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