Using the ‘Mirror Stage’ to Get Ready in the Morning
Jacques Lacan is a Frenchman who taught me no one will ever be truly happy unless they’re either in the middle of a toe-clenching orgasm or they’re dead. Lacan is dead now. I hope he’s happy. According to him, when we’re little our soft little baby heads aren’t capable of distinguishing between our imaginations and the real world. It’s an easy argument to believe because by in large infants are idiots.
Anyway, so one day when we’re about six months old we see our little bodies in the mirror and go ‘holy shit that’s me!’ We realise that we are a person, not just an extension of our mum’s boob. Some people never work this out, like that creepy kid from Game of Thrones but most of us do and the moment we do is what Lacan calls the ‘mirror stage’. It’s a beautiful moment. We are one with our reflection, we are whole, we are a unified being separate from the rest of the world and we are pretty damn pleased about it. Have you ever seen a baby lose their shit at the site of their own reflection? This is what he’s talking about.
Unfortunately for us this kind of contentment only lasts a moment because if you really think about it, it’s nothing but fucking trick. Look down at your arms. Now get naked. Now imagine a world where there has been never been any mirrors. Me for example, I’d look like a mess of arms, chest, hairy nipples, torso, legs, an ok-sized penis and unclipped toes. Even at this fragmented level we can only focus on ourselves one limb at a time. I’d know I have a face, a back and a bum hole but only because other people do so I couldn’t really know for sure.
In short, our whole self-image is based on a reflection; a fiction that we can never really reconcile as truth and we spend our whole lives searching for that, fleeting, gleeful, baby-drool moment when we knew that we were a whole person. Unfortunately we can never actually attain it.
The problem is language. The moment we recognise ourselves is also around the same time we start speaking i.e we unwittingly buy into a language system that has existed for thousands of years before we were born. Everything is so loaded with meaning before we get there (a lot of it implying that we’re inadequate is some way) that navigating between our internal self and the world around us becomes a life-long obstacle course.
To make matters more complicated Lacan says ‘the unconscious is structured like language’. This is a bit of a mind fuck but I think he means:
Language is in a separate realm to external reality because it really only relates to itself. We may think words relate only to things but words only really get their meaning when they’re up against other words. The best example of this is, if you’re a man you only know to go into the men’s bathroom because the women’s is right next to it. Meaning without an opposite has no meaning at all. If the word for man had always been apple then we’d all be pissing apples… or something like that.
So words and meanings have a life of their own and constantly obscure the supposed clarity of external reality. Before the mirror phase there’s no real need to distinguish between the imaginary world and the real one because you don’t know that names of anything yet. The separate realm of language doesn’t exist yet.
Lacan says the unconscious is like this, it’s in a world of its own. We may think our conscious behaviour is the key to who we are but it’s the little slippages in meaning, like a blurted out thing you didn’t really mean to say, that hold the real clues to who you are. Which is a whole fucking big strew of language you’ve been sucking in since you first looked in the mirror and worked out you were a person.
No wonder everyone’s so unhappy and fucked up (that is until we die or until we la petite morte all over the place.) We’re a fragmented mess of conflicting messages we have less control of than we think so we set goals, achieve them, get bored and set new ones.
I suggest we use the ‘mirror phase’ every morning. Being aware that we’re a whole lot more mess up than we give ourselves credit for and that contentment can only ever be fleeting is a pretty liberating thought. It’s a good excuse for not giving a fuck and it helps you focus on the moments when everything is rad.