Anal-ytic Exposition Dump Part 5b: Law of diminishing returns

Frequently these days I have a strangely bipolar feeling about my work.  In fact, nearly every large academic project I have ever labored upon has resulted in the sense that it represents either the best work I have ever done and stands as a shining monolith to be worshiped and adored by the masses, or is the worst travesty of an attempt imaginable and needs to be put out of its misery.  I don’t mean that I think one of these things or the other.  I mean that I can’t ever tell regarding a particular paper or presentation whether I’ve done something grand or wasted time better spent looking for a new vocation.

This tendency toward mania has only increased since arriving at the U of C.  My first two papers for the program received “B” grades and I would have told you that they were better than any undergrad papers I’d ever turned in–at least before I received them back from my preceptor.  For someone like me the response to that sort of radical misevaluation of my efforts has traditionally been to redouble my efforts and tell myself that I’d make up the lost points on future work.  However, while I certainly have put many, many hours into this most recent Lacan paper, it is not the only thing I have to work on.  I have two other 25 to 35 page papers due in the next month in classes where they will constitute the whole of my grade and at least one of these papers needs to be in draft form by the end of this coming week.  I could keep revising and polishing this Lacan draft until I had draft numbers in the double digits, but there is most likely a law of diminishing returns at play.

I will most likely make at least one more draft and perhaps two before I send off an electronic copy to my preceptor and close the book on the mirror stage, but the changes made to these later papers will be minimal in comparison to the differences between the first and second drafts so this is the last one I will post here.  I am really quite surprised at how different the–nearly–final form of this paper looks from the ideas I had in my head of how I’d write it just four days ago.  However, while I feel the unplanned recursive structure of the paper fits its subject well–giving the dense material a visible structure–it might also be considered redundant.  The paper’s comparative approach–contrasting Freud and Lacan’s conceptions of the ego function–also represents a potential strength or weakness of the endeavor.  I can imagine my preceptor praising the sharp contours that Lacan’s thought takes in light of his master Freud or I can imagine being berated because this is a paper about Lacan’s mirror stage not his quibbles with the father of psychoanalysis.

If there is anything I do feel certain about in my gloss it is that I could teach this paper and allow students to understand Lacan–not just think they understand him.  After finishing my first draft I read through about twenty secondary treatments of the mirror stage paper–about a third professional, a third grad level, and a third undergrad.  I was surprised at how many of all three of the groups wrote as though Lacan was writing a treatise on the development of children in the same vein as Erik Erikson or perhaps Albert Bandura.  I was also shocked to discover how many seemed to not make the differentiation between ego as object and ego as psychical structure or function.  There are some nit-picky distinctions that my paper makes e.g. idea that for Freud the ego arrives as a unity, is divided by the constitution of the ideal-I, but then is said to develop into a unity in later life.  That return to unity was missed in the lectures on the mirror stage and in most professional treatments I’d read of Freud’s ego theory–but I can back it up with a passage from On Narcissism.  I can understand if commentators miss that sort of thing–old Sigmund didn’t use this claim to support anything in particular and it changes little or nothing in his system.  However, treating the mirror stage like an addendum chapter from What to expect when you’re expecting is a real failure to understand Lacan’s text.  I think good teaching is foreseeing misunderstandings and helping people to avoid them and I think I could do that after this intensive period with Lacan’s mirror stage.

Draft number 2: My website’s list of search terms tells me that I’m starting to get some folks coming to the site in order to find help for their own papers.  One search query was “analytic exposition on Lacan mirror stage.”  However, again, the point of this exercise was to demonstrate one possible way of tackling this project and one potential outcome of that process.  Anyone and everyone is welcome to consider the questions that I asked, the distinctions that I’ve tried to make, and the choices that informed the general shape of the project.  However, don’t take my word for it and don’t take my words as your own… be good and do good work. (I can’t even imagine how bad it would be to caught plagiarizing at the U of C).

In The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function (…),Lacan argues that subjectivity is constituted in response to the presentation of an imago, the metaphorical mirror-image that calls forth an act of self-conceptualization which psychoanalysis names “ego.” Lacan’s conception of the formation of subjectivity disagrees with Freud’s in several respects. For Freud the ego construct is initially unified, then characterized as divided (into ego and ideal ego), and ultimately develops a high degree of unity later in life.1 For Lacan the ego function is always, already in conflict with itself by the nature of constitution. Further, Freud argued that the later division of the ego function into primordial and ideal was the result of intellectual awareness and internalization of cultural and moral rules.2 Lacan argues that from the inception of the ego function the primordial and ideal ego are divided—a condition that cultural and linguistic conventions only further cement. Thus, the significance of the mirror stage for Lacan is its contribution to his more substantial claim that the nature of the ego function’s formation of the “I” results in 1) perpetual striving toward the fictitious ideal, 2) perpetual lateness and failure in its pursuit, and 3) perpetual dependence on the Other. In other words, a fundamentally unsatisfying, yet productive relationship between the interior (subjective) and exterior (objective) world.

For Freud a) the ego is unified from its constitution, b) the mechanism that divides the ego is cultural, and c) before this division the ego enjoys all the subject’s self-love. Subjectivity arises as a unity and division occurs only with the later formation of the ideal ego function—against which the conscience measures the original ego.3 The ideal ego, or ideal-I, is understood as the internalization of external cultural morals. In childhood, Freud believed the ego function to be its own ideal such that self-love knows no limitation. However, after the advent of the ideal-I—as a culturally determined division of the ego function—narcissism is directed only toward the ideal unless or until it attaches itself to other objects.4

In contrast, for Lacan a) the ego is divided from its constitution onward without the ability to unify, b) the mechanism calls forth the divided ego is a fictional externality—an imago (metaphorical mirror image), and c) the ego never enjoys the full measure of its own self-love as it is constituted aware of both a fictional ideal and an actual insufficiency. a)The appearance of the imago—a gestalt or ideal form—calls forth a psychic response on the part of the theoretical subject—which is not yet a subject to itself, but only an object of other’s observation. This response is a partially true and partially deluded identification with the imago that results in a divided ego function. One part of the ego identifies with feelings of immobility, helplessness, and uncoordination that it continues to feel while another part assumes—takes on as an identity—the perceived gestalt image of mobility, strength, and wholeness presented to it in the metaphorical mirror. The ego function then perpetually struggles to become the fictional ideal, to close the gap between its reality and the gestalt imago it has misrecognized as itself—a wound that cannot be closed. For Lacan, unlike Freud, the ego function may never develop into a unity as it never was a unity—the actual may approach the ideal, but the two are incommensurable.

b) Lacan, further argues that it is not social—or linguistic—determination that brings about the appearance of the ideal ego. The ego’s constituting force is not an actual exteriority of parental wishes or cultural mores, but a fictitous exteriority whose appearance—whether by way of mirror, caregiver, or structure of the mind—causes the not yet self-aware subject to become the object of its own experience and therefore, also a subject.

c) The ideal ego is that part of the ego that mistakenly identifies with and assumes the identity of the gestalt ideal form. The other part of the ego is that part which feels a fundamental disunity and discordance with the appropriated ideal—a lack, insufficiency, or impotence with regard to the ideal. Thus, even in childhood the nature of the constituted ego does not allow the full measure of self-love to be lavished on the ego–as the ego never existed without its ideal and therefore self knowledge of its actual insufficiency. For Lacan, unlike Freud, narcissism is always limited—even in childhood—due to the constitution of the ego function as divided.

As self-love is also a sense of self approval and competence, to argue for the legitimacy of the mirror stage is also to establish the nature of the fundamental and irreversible relationship between subjects and objects—between self-aware organisms and reality. In other words, the significance of the mirror stage for Lacan is the larger claim that the nature of the constitution of the ego results in three conditions. 1) Subjects perpetually strive toward their ideal, the dihesence—or gap between their actual and ideal—is the engine of their progress—despite the fact that their goal is a mirage. 2) Self aware organisms experience a perpetual lateness and failure in the pursuit of their ideal as they are always late for their arrival as they sort of things they purport to be—that is whole, sufficient, and capable. 3) Subjects have a perpetual dependence on the Other. That is, the ego—complete with its fictitious ideal component—defines and constricts the development of the subject, but also serves as a defense against its own feelings of insufficiency and anticipation with regard to exterior demands of the Other. The misidentification of the imago as “self” is followed by further examples of the constitution of the ego by social determination and linguistic convention—the Other’s of life. Thus, Lacan’s conception of a fundamentally unsatisfying, yet productive relationship between the interior (subjective) and exterior (objective) world.


1Freud speaks of the difficulty of differentiating between the psychical energies of ego-instincts and the ego-libido, but acknowledges that the ego is a unity—at least after a period of development. Freud writes “we are bound to suppose that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed.” Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism: An Introduction, p 76-77.

2Freud, On Narcissism, p 93.

3Freud is less clear on this point than a careful student would wish, but in the second paragraph on page 95 of On Narcissism, he declares that “a special psychical agency [the conscience] which performs the task of seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured and which, with this end in view, constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal [ego].” This passage demonstrates that the more recently developed ideal-ego is not identical with the more primordial actual ego and also that the ideal-I is not identical with the conscience.

4“This ideal ego is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego.” Freud, On Narcissism, p 94.


One comment on “Anal-ytic Exposition Dump Part 5b: Law of diminishing returns

  1. I’ve had quite the same experience as you describe in the beginning—some of the work on my nascent blog represents what I have thought were shining examples of my particular style of “doing philosophy” and about which I have felt variously as though they should be a) adored or b) renditioned to some small country with good torturers and bad laws.

    That being said, wrestling with the Lacan paper for the final stretch yesterday was among the most grueling experiences of my academic life. Far worse than my 20-page thesis upon which the level of departmental undergrad honors depended, or those papers designed to desperately try and impress my deeply-adored mentor and advisor. And at some point, when my sanity was almost about to (quite literally) crack, I stopped caring about understanding. Not about writing it well, just about parsing it into all of its constituent framework pieces.

    I realized that why I have always loved continental philosophy is because my skills are in intuitive understanding and grasping, not dissection. Don’t misread me—I think the latter are the “better” skills, and I see them on full and glorious display in your work. I even recognize that the boot-camp atmosphere of MAPH is, for me, the opportunity to hone those skills I lack. But as I mentioned to Jessica yesterday, I decided to stop letting not understanding Lacan interfere with my ability to explain it. (That being said, I also suggested that I was just going to steal yours and turn it first, so that when I point at you and scream “Plagiarist!” it’ll be more convincing.)

    I think that with Lacan, the realization that (for me) trying to break something down into constituent parts that simply isn’t built out of constituent parts is a fool’s game. Some people—like yourself—can do it. I finally realized that if I were to survive this paper, I would have to intuit my way through it, walk down the dark corridor singing and change course when my song got too loud as it bounced of walls that were closing in. A rough metaphor, I know, but the big revelation was that regardless of the grade I get—and I fully expect it could be my lowest yet, though I leapt from a B to a B+ on the last one—I wrote this one honestly, as myself. Does that sound ridiculous? I can almost imagine you shaking your head and even rolling your eyes a bit. But somehow it was the only way to get out of it with my head held high and dignity and sanity intact.

    I don’t want to show it to you now, because if you tell me all the things I have done wrong I will freak out and second-guess myself to no end (and because I have a paper to write today that I have actually been really been looking forward to, in which I apply Heidegger and Derrida’s thought on hands and handiwork to The Island of Dr. Moreau and your skillful observations on my paper would no doubt send me scrambling back to that French bastard and his effing mirror rather than my fun paper), but after the fact, I’d love for you to take a look at it and get your opinions on how functional the intuitive approach is. Of course, if it is marked with a B- and a frowny face from Will telling me he’s “not mad, just really, really disappointed,” then we may have to have the conversation with hankies at the ready.

    Buena suerte, big brain.

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