This class has few significant developments. Indeed, it seems to me that the class is largely filled with digressions. This makes sense given that the entire class was framed around a question posed to Lacan about the relation between the mirror stage (and, more to the point, the specular image) and the signifier.
As we know, any introduction to Lacan’s work usually involves a discussion of that one paper that Lacan wrote on the mirror stage (as formative of the function I). We get the impression that the mirror stage deals only with the imaginary – the image – and that there is no place for the signifier, the unary trait, and, more importantly, the big Other. However, Lacan points out that one can see the relationship between the specular image and the signifier as early as 1946, in his “Presentation on Psychical Causality” (in L’Evolution Psychiatrique). He suggests that he has been “weaving” these two strands together since the beginning. Here we see a very obvious form of retroaction – something that Lacan would become known for in later years.
In this class we also get to read a nice response to those who argue for three different/independent periods of his work. Lacan responds that there are not different phases in his work (i.e., one that focuses on the mirror stage or the imaginary and another that discovers the signifier). We can see here the development of a Borromean articulation. The Borromean knot becomes central to Lacan’s work 5 years later.
So this class takes upon itself a very simple exercise, which is to demonstrate that the big Other is present within the specular relation. Lacan begins with a reaffirmation of the claim from his paper on the mirror stage: there is only one world for us to live in and this is the world of reflection[s]. This means that the relationship between the subject and the little other (specular image) and the subject and the big Other (signifier) occur within the same world. But how can this be? Lacan’s argument is that the specular relation is itself dependent on the fact that the subject is within the locus of the big Other.
In the last class we saw that the unary trait functions as the “key” which precedes the subject and yet grants her access to the signifying chain. The unary trait, being the big Other’s key, inasmuch as it is a signifier, permits the subject as such to exist. It thereby instigates desire. All of this occurs within the dimension of the signifier.
The specular relation, put simply, occurs when the subject looks into the figurative mirror and sees a coherent image of himself. We should not be deceived by the simplicity of the model, Lacan claims that this movement toward the mirror happens so frequently that even we, adult scholars, should be familiar with it. But the mirror, existing to grant coherency to the subject as image, is nothing without the next movement: the subject turns around 180 degrees – like Althusser’s subject – and looks to the person standing behind him: “is that really an image of me?” The infant’s head turns toward the adult to ask for approval, recognition, validation. Lacan puts it like this: “[s]he seems to be asking someone who is supporting him, namely the big Other, to ratify the value of this image.”
So now we can see the nexus between the subject’s relation to the big Other and the specular image [i(a)] as such. But there are two types of imaginary identification: (1) there is the identification with the i(a), the specular image, and (2) there is identification – “mysterious identification” – with the object of desire, object a. Here there is a distinction between the specular image and the object a itself. The latter, claims Lacan, is the object of anxiety. We are never satisfied with the specular relation and so we endlessly preserve the question of the object a: “Why is it that people aren’t happy about the world being so in order, ever since the Neolithic period – because we can’t go back any further – that everything should merely amount to insignificant wavelets on the surface of this order? In other words, why do we want so much to preserve the dimension of anxiety? There must be a reason for this.” [This reminds me of something said by Alain Badiou during a seminar I took with him: “If we suppose that a monster is that which does not conform to the law of the world, then true desire is always the desire for a monster.”] Situated by this question, Lacan believes it is our task to study the function of desire.
We return again to the graph of desire. Beginning from the node on the bottom right ($) and moving upward through the specular relation [i(a)] and further through the dimension of the big Other (A) we see there are two pathways: (1) there is s(A) which is the meaning that the Other gives to our messages, or, if you like, the Other’s response to our demands. And (2) something is left over from this [d] – it is the remainder that we found in the last class through our long division – named the object a. Lacan puts it like this: “not all of the libidinal investment passes by way of the specular image … there’s a remainder” We can think of it like this: we ask for something from our mother and she gives us it (eg., a cookie) – but this was not what we really wanted, we really wanted to be desired. So the cookie is the response that the big Other gives to our demand. But what we really wanted, to be desired, was not fulfilled by the cookie. So it is extra, a residue, which persists as object a. In as much as the big Other can not fulfil this latter desire she is reduced to something like a lack.
We see that this lack is the source of considerable anxiety for the subject. Lacan equates, citing Freud, that the object of anxiety is the object a. The problem is that we can never do anything but recognize the object a in the register of the imaginary. The more we approach the object of desire the more we are pushed away from it – this is an object that can not be oriented by us. The more we approach it, the more we reorient ourselves instead of the object – and we reorient ourselves using the specular relation.
Finally, anxiety emerges when the specular relation appears in place of the lack in the Other. And this was also what Freud described as the uncanny. The uncanny appears at the place where the lack in the Other should be. And this lack, also referred to as “minus-phi” or “castration” is where everything begins.