Category Archives: gender issues

Lacan’s Mirror Stage Theory: Identity and Sacrifice

In his paper on narcissism, Freud suggests that the narcissistic ego is a reflection of the erotogenic surface of the body. Instead of being cathected outwards towards exterior objects, which is the typical behavior of the ego operating under the influence of the pleasure principle, the narcissistic ego’s libidinal energy is turned inwards and takes parts of the subject’s own image or body as an object. Whereas it is typical of the ego to be invested in objects outside of itself, the narcissistic ego takes the person’s own self as an object of desire. Hence the ego is correlative to the areas of the body that are invested with sexual energy, the erotogenic zones; the ego is a projection of the surface of the body. We will see how this has implications for the formation of sexual differences between men and women. If the ego, which encompasses consciousness, is a projection of the body’s erotogenic surface, then we can already begin to see how the phallus, to the chagrin of feminists, becomes the main signifier for the ego that will shape and direct it. How does this happen, and to what extent is this model of the ego normative to human experience? Lacan’s mirror stage theory is an attempt to explain the origins of this narcissistic ego. (Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with Lacan, I’m merely communicating his theory)

Lacan argues that the ego is a social construction, that it is a result of our interaction with others. The ego does not come biologically pre-conditioned, it is based on an “‘organic insufficiency’, which the child attempts to fill by means of an identification with the image of an other” (Grosz, 33). Whereas animals rely on their instincts for survival, humans rely on social organization, language and laws. the necessities of language and social order for survival are preconditions of the ego. As a theory that seeks the origin of the ego, Lacan traces its etiology back to the infantile stage and analyzes the child’s experience. When the infant is first born, it is without any privileged point of bodily reference, meaning that each separate body part operates apart from the rest; there has yet to be a unified body, what exists is an aggregate of uncorrelated parts. The infant is incapable of controlling its bodily movements; its motor functions are limited and all it can do is helplessly flail its body around.

Its body is an uncoordinated aggregate, a series of parts, zones, organs, sensations, needs, and impulses rather than an integrated totality. Each part strives for its own satisfaction with no concern for the body as a whole. It has no experience of corporeal or psychical unity or of occupying a stable position within a corporeally delimited space (Grosz, 33-4).

At this infantile stage the child has yet to distinguish between itself and the world. It struggles with understanding and differentiating between the strange objects that it perceives. It perceives random shapes and colors but it does not know them as colors or shapes because it has yet to develop language with which to formulate them as such; the child has yet to identify these phenomena with a symbolic order.[1] As an infant, the child is bombarded with stimuli that it cannot make sense of. At this stage, the child is still one with the mother; its existence is still rather womb-like of an experience, attached and undifferentiated.

It isn’t until the child experiences the absence of the mother that it begins to develop an understanding of there being an outside world that it exists within and that operates independent of itself. In the beginning the infant perceives that it is at the mercy of the mother for survival, subsistence and pleasure. The mother, who is the first ‘other’ which we identify with as an infant, is that who we are dependent on. The further this dependence is sustained as the infant develops, the more the infant is overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and agitation at its limited motor abilities to fulfill its own desires, desires that aren’t being understood by the m/other precisely due the infant’s simultaneous lack of language ability. This frustration is manifest in crying and random fits of seeming rage, but is assuaged as the infant begins to forsake the project of communicating itself through its own language of baby talk, and when the infant begins to adopt the m/other’s language. This is when identity formation begins, when the infant starts to appropriate a symbolic order, a system of language, in order to make sense of the queer and strange world into which it is born, into which it is forcefully subjected without a say. Hence there is no such thing as an authentic personal identity, for whatever identity we have is always imposed upon us by the prevailing symbolic order, which is of course inclusive of language, culture, art, media, and so on. In this way one can say that identity is always a social construction.

We are always in the mode of being written over by the language of others, of being engendered by culture, of passively appropriating a prevailing symbolic order- the Lacanian ‘law of the father.’ Limited motor functions forces the child to identify itself visually with a disembodied mirror image, marking a decisive break from the mother.[2] And yet, in the beginning, the infant is one with/in its m/other, within an other. In a womb-space without reference to language or structures, a space of disorientation and fluidity, indeed, a queer space. How does this displacement from mother to father occur? One is born within an other; one is born of the m/other. In the beginning, we are two, never one. From the womb to ‘pre-Oedipal’ infancy our connection and dependence on the mother is a ‘matter’ of life and death. We have no need of a language yet because we have no need for identity, for there has yet to exist concepts of self and other. The infant and m/other are ‘two,’ but as two they are ‘one’ insofar as their bodies are adapted to one another (think how the mother’s physiology changes during pregnancy, how she breathes for the child) in a reciprocal relation, one that is beyond economy (Greek- oikenomos).

However, this symbiotic relation is not to last. The infant turns against the m/other, the first other that nurtures and births it into existence. This occurrence is a sort of primary claustrophobia. The love of the m/other becomes too suffocating. The infant begins to realize it has motor functions and can do the things the mother does. We desire escape from the womb and detachment from her breast. We desire independence and identity, separation from the mother in order to make sense of the world around us, to become self-sufficient, to attain self-identity, to carve out our own autonomous space independent from her. But does this connection with the m/other necessarily be severed? By the father, by social systems of patriarchal law and language?

One could equally, however, see the child’s manifest resistance to weaning as a symptom of the trauma occasioned by the final break in material contact with the inside of the mother’s body: rupture of the fetal membranes, cutting of the umbilical cord, denial of the breast. A series of breaks with all that might be represented as the material causes of the child’s body.[3]

Irigaray brings to our attention the problem of material origin and its lack of representation in psychoanalytic language; a rupture between mind and body, that will henceforth dictate the primacy of the gaze and the visual over the tactile and material. Separating itself from the mother, the child begins to identify with the father, and yet the child is never able to fully negate its connection to its material origins, “from which one must eternally separate and be separated but to which one must eternally return and refer back.”[4] For Lacan, the desire for an identity necessitates the negation of one’s primordial connection with the m/other and from one’s body. It is what constitutes alienation in language and estrangement from one’s bodily existence, and yet, it is simultaneously the condition upon which one can become a subject. For Irigaray, this shows how identity comes to be based upon the sacrifice of the mother, of woman’s body.



[1] Which is to say that objects, in part, take on meaning when we are able to understand them symbolically. E.g. a cup can symbolize concepts such as drink, thirst, water, etc., or better for our purposes here, a mother can symbolize nourishment, warmth, but also absence and restriction.

[2] Lacan, Ecrits., p.6.

[3] SP., p.40.

[4] Ibid., p. 40.

Framing a Problem: How Corporations Manufacture Public (and Private) Consciousness

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to deport Clive Boutilier, a Canadian, on the basis of his being homosexual. The decision was based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that stated “aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality…shall be excludable from admission into the United States.” The legislative history of this act reflected how congress interpreted ‘psychopathic’ to include homosexuality, an interpretation informed by psychiatry and the DSM-II (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, kinda like the Bible of psychiatry).

Now, the assumption might be that if homosexuality was included as a pathology in scientific literature by medical professionals then there’d be nothing more to argue. But this would be naive. For the medical sciences and health industry are far from being objective. In fact, by designating homosexuality as a mental illness psychiatry simply mirrored the values of a homophobic society interested in maintaining a certain status quo, imposing conformity upon society. Even if a majority of homosexuals turned out to be afflicted with mental illness, it would not necessarily follow that their being mentally ill was a result of their being homosexual;  rather, it would be just as plausible that their being mentally ill were actually caused by the oppressive afflictions of living in a homophobic world. Such a fictional pathology would not be anymore due to intrinsic causes than extrinsic ones.  And if intrinsic, the cause of pathology would be indifferent to sexual orientation, just as readily discovered in heterosexuals as in homosexuals.

The point of this post is not to defend homosexuality per se, rather the issue I’m trying to get at is that what people naively believe to be truisms are nearly always manufactured by societal and normative interests. People think they come to their ideas and beliefs by themselves through rational thought when in actuality they were coerced and pre-programmed to think along certain party lines. This is just another example of how many of people’s values and beliefs are socially constructed and politically coerced, an example of how lobby groups and corporate interests manufacture public and political policies, in turn shaping societal norms and values. It is naive to believe that anyone can be invulnerable to such impositions, that one has shaped one’s own destiny in life of one’s own free will, and nihilistic to believe that such deception doesn’t warrant an active resistance against such evil. In an interview, Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist acting as a consultant to the DSM-II, revealed how diseases became categorized as such not due to scientific facts but due to political coercion. When asked about how new diseases were included into the DSM:

Spitzer: you have to lobby, that’s how. you have to have troops.

Interviewer: so it’s not a matter of…

Spitzer: having the data? no

Interviewer: it’s nothing to do with science then, and nothing to do with evidence?

Spitzer nodded.

And the scary result of such political coercion that is dismissive of diversity, and that only embraces its self-interests that reflects the dissolution of the democratic process, is that it produces morons like this guy (below) and many others like him who go around duping that part of the masses who are too lazy or disinterested to figure out for themselves the meaning behind things. And we haven’t even begun to discuss how the online medium of communication only exacerbates and spreads such nihilism. Although the DSM has since taken homosexuality off its manual of disorders, there are still morons who keep its seedy legacy alive. Below is a comment that some poster left on this youtube video, to which i replied:

It’s been four decades since such gender issues were stricken from the DSM and yet, here we still are today feeling the effects of the past. Lobbyists’ actions, corporate interests, regimes of the nihilistic status quo, the phallic discourse of the Same, theocratic institutions– the violence of binary metaphysics has lasting temporal effects. Meaning, the dogmatic adherence to apparent truths necessarily marginalizes, objectifies and does violence against those who fall outside the purview of such illusory and politically manufactured truths. But these ideas seep into consciousness and are petrified there as belief. Set into stone. Setting Others in stone. And so its our task to continue to break such stone tablets at the foot of mountains that write in fire.

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a woman and her truck

What’s being celebrated here? [Woman]? Technology? Masculinity? Bracketing the illusion, that this is a truck commercial, the narrative that ‘Chevy’ chose here is interesting. The idea that Chevy builds ‘tough’ trucks for ‘tough’ people…can’t we easily replace ‘tough’ with ‘masculine’? Ignoring the assumption that Chevy’s  targeting a male audience during the commercial break of a baseball all-star game, let’s imagine this was ‘geared’ towards women. Well, all this reveals is that the notion of a ‘tough’ woman only exists as derivative of a culture that is a priori masculine. That insofar as ‘woman’ is, is because Chevy defines her via recourse to its-self. Typical corporate psychology, at least in the world of the hyper-real commercial. Which is what the masses confuse as ‘reality’. Is this ‘woman’? How can one say ‘no’? Yet how can one affirm this depiction of ‘woman’ without recourse to masculine values? I suppose what’s being celebrated here is the notion of grit. Western grit. That grit belongs to boys and girls alike. Perhaps thats a way to circumvent the male/female or object/subject dichotomies: don’t address the identity, address what identity presupposes. Anyways. with the above being said, I surprisingly like this commercial. Not cause I agree with Chevy or the commercial world’s message or any such intentionality that’s behind the video. Tapping into that 5th dimension, the woman in the world of the video gives me hope of possibility. She’s doing her own thing, world be damned. And the ribbons ain’t going in her hair, but on her wall. And she’s driving that truck, that truck ain’t driving her. ‘Two bodies with one mind’– can’t say I affirm this one though; Chevy slipped up there and could take a cue from the Fast and Furious series. It’s not one mind but one body in affective relation with its environment, be it natural or mechanical. Not merely a woman and her truck but a woman and her horse. A woman as her self without reference to that male other. Again, she’s driven but not being-driven. What’s driving her would be a mystery for only men properly speaking (and by this I mean in Freudian terms), have ‘drives’. And so man drives, for his metaphysical nature so compels him to drive, to cause accidents, pave roads, map the earth and emit poison upon the atmosphere. The drive towards innovation, technology, and ‘life’; yet, it’s a drive that simultaneously denies life and what sustains it. But not so for the woman and her horse. Her way [is] the nurture of mystery. It is unknown to us. And yet it sustains us. To speak of it is to deny it, to deny it is to speak of it. Confounding and marking the the limits of binary/patriarchal reason and being.

 

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