VIRTUAL LACAN: REFLECTIONS ON THE MIRROR STAGE IN TECHNOLOGY

It suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification, in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes [assume] an image—an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect at this phase, as witnessed by the use in analytic theory of antiquity’s term, “imago.”
—Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949)

So composed and constructed, the spectacle will be extended, by elimination of the stage, to the entire hall of the theater and will scale the walls from the ground up on light catwalks, and physically envelop the spectator and immerse him in a constant bath of light, images, movements, and noises. The set will consist of the characters themselves, enlarged to the stature of gigantic manikins, and of landscapes of moving lights playing on objects and masks in perpetual interchange. And just as there will be no unoccupied point in space, there will be neither respite nor vacancy in the spectator’s mind or sensibility. That is, between life and the theater there will be no distinct division, but instead a continuity.
—Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty, Second Manifesto” (1938)

The question comes to me this morning: has the formative, infantile moment of Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ been replaced by what I will call the permanent glimpse? The smartphone and the tablet have, in both the privacy of the home[i] and in social contexts—cafes, restaurants, aeroplanes, waiting rooms, subways, etcetera—become devices for the pacification of infants and young children. You will have seen the child’s interaction with the screen, the narrowing of the eyes upon the vanishing point of technology, and the anxiety of the child when the pacific tablet loses its double power, in one sense its electrical power to emanate, in another its power to implicate and fascinate. Consider also the anxiety of the adult when faced with a ‘blank’ screen, a machine that will not boot, a television that will not operate. Yet, the blank screen is never truly blank, for it contains the implicit presence of the viewer, reflected in its glass surface. There is a moment, before activation, when the device functions more purely as a mirror, before it begins to produce itself, and to produce its user. When the screen, the phone, the television is switched off, there again is the user, the viewer in a dark portrait. Shifting the focus of the eyes, the sublated image of the viewer returns, in a glass darkly. The infant, child, and adult in our society spends more time reflected in the glossy surfaces of devices than he ever did in the looking glass. In the gloss of our screens, our reflections are latent unconscious presences, and the (c)overt presence of our image results in constant (over)adaption to it. We are never content with reflection, just as we frequently reject photographs. Some revision is necessary.

We do not, it is true, carry actual looking glasses with us throughout our work-leisure day, except that we do by analog. We take ‘selfies’ and you will have seen someone use their active photo screen as a mirror. In its development, the device itself is ever subsumed by its screen, now its edge-to-edge quality, the erosion of borders, the vanishing frame of the mirror. In these mirrors, the moment of seeing or being ‘seen’ is replaced by the permanent glimpse. The frequency and the inadequacy of these largely unnoticed reflections form a virtual palimpsest, a rewriting of the Lacanian scene that continues now into childhood, into adolescence, and adulthood. Beyond or behind the screen, inside the mirror, as it were, is the virtual, the Web. Into this we project multiplied iterations of the I, which reflect us, that we distort, refine, exaggerate, and use to create misrecognitions. As I have said before, it is important to note that this réalité virtuelle, was anticipated by Antonin Artaud in 1938, as an alchemical space, that is a space for transmutation, and as a totalitarian space where “there will be neither respite nor vacancy in the spectator’s mind or sensibility” (125). I think we recognize the essence of this. The thou art that is replaced by thou art those. The analytic experience, Lacan writes, “teaches us not to regard the ego as centered on the perception-consciousness system or as organized by the ‘reality principle’—the expression of a scientific bias most hostile to the dialectic of knowledge—but, rather, to take as our point of departure the function of misrecognition that characterizes the ego in all the defensive structures so forcefully articulated by Anna Freud. For, while Verneinung [negation] represents the blatant form of that function, its effects remain largely latent as long as they are not illuminated by some reflected light at the level of fate where the id manifests itself” (80). We need not push the anticipatory metaphor.

It is certain that the postmodern, or posthuman infant apprehends itself in Lacan’s mirror stage more often in the dormant then numinous surfaces of electronica than in the antique mirror[ii]. In the preeminence of the electronic screen, the glass surface of the iPad is the plane where the Lacanian moment of identification takes place. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” Lacan compares human infant development with that of the chimpanzee, “at an age when he is for a short while, but for a while nevertheless, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence,” the child “can already recognize his own image as such in a mirror” (75). In the chimpanzee, the encounter with the corresponding image quickly “exhausts itself” whereas in the infant, narcissistic and libidinal recognitions hold the child’s attention. It sees itself as others see it; economies of desire and aesthetics, interpellate[iii] it. It manipulates its image and discovers the source of its power to manipulate the other in a system of desire.

The Lacanian encounter with “the imago of one’s own body” (77) is—though not so quickly exhausted in the infant as it in the disinterested chimpanzee, lacking latent narcissism or the implicit aesthetics of the mirror as a field within a decorated nursery which itself suggests prettified orders and ideologies to assimilate the child—relatively fleeting. Still, the infant will break with its reflection in the mirror quite naturally when distracted, or if the parent that placed the mirror or held the looking glass before the child removes it. Perhaps the parent is unsettled by observing the child’s seductive and traumatic self-identification, experiences something uncanny, or fears that the child may be overwhelmed or confused, and this moment of identification may not be repeated for some time[iv]. Taboos are constructed around the moment, around vanity, narcissism, masturbation. The contingency of the screen in our culture means, however, that the mirror stage never reaches terminus.

The power of even non-reflective screens, notably cinema, is to nonetheless produce and reflect, metaphorically, desire, and to present nonconforming imagos that alter, temporarily at least, the ego and the physical characteristics of the viewer, as the viewer alters toward them via desire. Witness or experience the adoption of the mannerisms, diction, or quotation that takes place in spectacular identification: the cowboy walk, the swagger, the empowerment or demurement that comes from the screen, or the acquisition of anxieties possessed by the projected fictional characters upon whom and into whom we project, etcetera. Usually, this is temporary, and might only last until the spectator exits the cinema into daylight and begins to feel self-conscious about identification with the unreal. The spectator is returned to ‘the real world.’ In contrast to the mirror stage, this identification with the cinematic is not automatic. It is frequently undone by failures with the film itself, a lack of charisma in the actors, boredom. And most of us do not spend so much time in cinema auditoriums, whereas real mirror time quickly accumulates.

Now, the ubiquity of the reflective technological screen sustains the mirror stage far beyond the power of antique mirrors to do so. Add to this the windshield or window of the commuter, the glass facades of consumer capitalism, and the presence of the reflected self becomes inescapable, and thus invites, or coerces the I into obsessive contemplation, and contemplation implies adjustment, adaption. Adjustment in the face of our reflection is virtually irresistible. The cultural interventions and maturation that lead to the termination of the mirror stage are usurped by the near-omnipresence—in ironicized cultural interventions—of the reflective surfaces of technologies. Because no person experiences their subjectivity in the narcissistic plane of a mirror without making at least some minor adjustment, to their person or viewing angle, the desire for modification in a perpetual reflection threatens to become neurotic. In the contingencies of the screen, what Lacan refers to as the “inertia characteristic of the I formations” that lead to neurosis and psychosis are inverted: the latent presence of the reflected self in the surfaces of technology, at work, at leisure, one interrupting the other, means a constant confrontation with subjectivity, anxious adjustments of the self in a continuity of desires, that does not discriminate between boredom and pleasure. Anyone who makes their living working with a screen knows boredom, and it is a simple shift of focus to find the reflected self, staring back out of that boredom, that dissatisfaction with the self and its position in the world. The avatar and the virtual presence of the self in work and leisure agitate the ego, depersonalize and demoralize the self, now constantly returning, or falling back into ‘the real word’.

The banalities of the screen can induce profound boredom, anger, helplessness, and inertia, and that inertia is informed by the ironic failure of the screen to inform, the disappointment in the virtual. This inertial trap leads, in Lacan, to neurosis, psychopathology, or madness afflicting the I. But there is no longer any I to speak of in screen-based contingency, posthumanism or posthumanities. The infantile I that the child experiences briefly as a marionette figure that it seems to operate in the glass is interrupted, and continually obliterated by the aspirational, paradoxical, duplicitous competitors it fantasizes on the screen, from which it cannot sufficiently break, with the physical self sublated by pixels, yet always present—if obscured by the emanating light of the screen—in the device before it. Perhaps it is better to suggest that the mobility, permeability, penetrability, and limitless potential of the virtual I (s) exaggerates a sense of ego inertia in the ‘real’ I, and this is the source of neurosis, driving the unconscious to suggest more exaggerated forms of physical and symbolic modification. That the generation most immersed in screen-contingency is also the most self-conscious in terms of the vulnerabilities and potentials of the self in performance, recognition, subjectivity, and visibility is neither coincidental nor surprising. The looking glass, the iPhone, the iPad, is seldom out of hand, even as it has been transformed, and they in turn pass through it toward willing fragmentation. One aspect of the Millennial attitude to culture is to insist on presence and visibility, to see itself where it is not by revision, to perform into spaces where reflection is absent. That moment in Lacan’s formulation when the infant experiences control of the reflected other in the mirror is inverted. This is the primacy of the imago. The I is no longer visible, except in the permanent glimpse.

Books by James Reich


[i] The notion of domestic privacy does not apply equally across classes where overcrowding and social immobility are restraints, and it may be that privacy will be remembered with a certain amount of nostalgia.

[ii] If the mirror is antique, as in antiquated, then the smartphone or tablet are antic, as in the derivation that connotes the grotesque: a friend observed that she was regularly disturbed by the angle of reflection of her face in her iPhone; its position below the chin offering the least flattering of perspectives in which to see herself.

[iii] See Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation), 1970.

[iv] Conventionally, after the moment of the mirror stage, children spend little subsequent time enthralled by actual mirrors, until pubescent sexuality compels a return. This is no longer the case when the contingencies of the screen force the permanent glimpse in their surfaces.

Reading:

Jacques Lacan. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” in Ecrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.

Antonin Artaud. The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Grove, 1958.