In order to describe what Lacan means by the term ‘mirror image’ it is essential to identify the key components of the theory, which Lacan illustrates as one of his four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. Throughout the text, Lacan explores the ideas of, physical reflection as wholeness, misrecognition, nature, the human being and reality, a fragmented body and ultimately the formation of the ego. Through analysing each of these components of the mirror stage, it will provide a notion of how the mirror stage theory is a key component of psychoanalysis. Lacan was a fundamental influence on contemporary critical theory, namely film theory. By outlining the components of Lacan’s mirror stage, it will provide a point of comparison to how Mulvey uses the theory in her critique of film, and the psychological workings of the film viewer.
It is interesting to note that Lacan was interested in the surreal ideal and was good friends with surrealist artists of the time when this paper was presented at the international congress of psychoanalysis 1949. It was a particular painting of Salvador Dali’s that caught Lacan’s attention, and consequently gave him the inspiration for the proposal of the mirror image theory. The painting is called Metamorphosis of Narcissus. By looking at the painting we can see why he may have proposed the theory, two similar figures, represented as if they were each a mirror image, but with imperfections and obvious differences which describe the notion of the wholeness and fragmentation. Lacan explains the notion of the ‘mirror stage’ in his first paragraph of the text; he describes it as “the formation of the ‘I’ as we experience it in psychoanalysis”. Lacan mentions that the stage occurs in children between the ages of six and eighteen months. During this period, an infant is able to recognise itself as an ontological being in a mirror and distinguish itself from the reflection and not looking at anyone else. By identifying with its own reflection, a sense of self or ‘I’ is formed. Thus process ultimately forms the self conscious mind, which is essential to Lacan’s theory later when describing ones creation of the ideal self, otherwise known as ‘ego’. Lacan states “we only have to understand the mirror stage as identification...the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image...” this suggests that the creation of the ego is primarily the result of identification in the subject. Homeomorphic identification, which is the identification with one’s self, the same person. This is interesting because when an infant is six months old, it still lacks informed coordination; an ability to make conscious movements on their own, but they are able to identify with their reflection as themselves and know that it is not anybody else, but that other people exist that are physically different; Heteromorphic identification. This then brings in the idea of the reflection as a visual identity being perceived as fantasy ‘wholeness’ in relation to the realistic ‘fragmentation’. This suggests that from the beginning, the subject strives for mastery but will never be achieved; the image in the mirror looks better than his actual self and seems more ‘perfect’ and idealised. This creates a conflict, between the infant and its reflection which introduced the notion of beauty and the ‘ego’. Because the infant is not in control of coordination, the “wholeness” of the image becomes fragmented, creating rivalry between the infant and the image of itself. Lacan describes the function of the mirror stage is to “establish a relation between the organism and its reality--or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt”. This means that the inner self is able to connect with its outside world, more like a reality within its environment. This idea also coincides with the idea of heteromorphic beauty, that in the subject’s environment, it sees beauty in other things that characterise within themselves or their physical exterior. This may be why people strive to adapt themselves to other people’s characteristics, in order to ‘boost’ their own ego and move closer towards their idealised image of themselves. This is obviously fictional and will never happen; it is about the subject being able to face up to reality and being truthful to it. Lacan describes the role of the mirror image as being derived from human nature and other animals.
Now that Lacan’s Mirror image theory has been described, we can now outline how Mulvey has incorporated this theory into her critique of film and how it relates to the film viewer. Mulvey describes one of the main concepts of Lacan’s theory which is the idea of the screen of which the film is showing becomes a mirror metaphorically. The person who is sitting watching the film identifies with a character on the screen, creating a rivalry between the subject and what they see in front of them, again reiterating the idea of a fragmented body, which will never be ‘whole’. Mulvey uses the idea of complete alienation of the subject’s feelings, because of the cinemas influence upon the subject to strive for a certain look, mainly a Hollywood movie star. This idea also coincides with the idea that the persons view is isolated; it is only the subject seeing the film, therefore the one desired image. The image being a handsome Hollywood film star, usually considered to be closest to the subjects ideal image of themselves and the nearest thing to a perfect image. So why do we continuously attend cinemas when we know we will never reach our own idealistic image as we see ‘mirrored’ at the cinema? Mulvey explains this using Lacan’s concept of animal morphological mimicry. Lacan states “animals seek to replicate features of their environment, not because it serves as camouflage against predators (it doesn't) but because the development of a notion of self is tied to the mastery of one's physical space”. Mulvey conveys this idea using a slightly different approach. The subject is already in rivalry with its self image which it reflects, in comparison to its inner self, but by going to the cinema, they are building a relationship with the ideal image...Subconsciously bringing the image closer to their ideal Hollywood image. But in reality, this brings false hope to the subject, creating an ongoing strive that will never be fulfilled, commonly known as the ego which is constantly trying to be ‘inflated’. Mulvey uses Lacan’s concept of the “I”, when discussing the role of women actresses in film and the notion as the ‘woman as an image’. Mulvey describes women as being in a “traditional exhibitionist role” and that they are traditionally looked at and displayed. This suggests that women have two main functions in a film one of which relates to Lacan’s ideology. She is an erotic object for the characters within the screen and in the storyline. Secondly, adhering more to Lacan’s theory, is that she is an erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium. She then goes on to say with a “shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen”; again this applies to Lacan’s idea of the mirror image and the constant strive for ego enhancement in the sense of the spectators view. An example we could use, is seeing this idea in a male perspective. The two functions of the woman in the film become unified to the male spectator, in the sense that the male viewer can identify with the male character in the film. The role of the man in the film in his heroic character transforms the woman into a spectacle, thus for a moment creating a highly sexualised moment “outside its own time and space”. Maybe creating a sense of wholeness within the male spectator, but in reality this image is already fragmented and will always be so. The notion of the male viewer identifying with another male is Lacan’s idea of heteromorphic identification. Mulvey mentions that the “cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking” a fascination with likeness and recognition with outer body parts and the relationship between them and its environment. This relays Lacan’s mirror stage theory, at the stage when a child for the first time recognises its own image in the mirror, which is crucial for the creation of its ego. A major concept of this is that the ego then imitates misrecognition, the stage when once the ideal ego image has been formed; the real reflected image is the source of alienation for the subject.
In conclusion we can see a significant amount of Lacanian mirror image ideology in Mulveys’ critique of film. Although Mulvey seems to emphasise relationship with one’s self during the mirror stage, she uses this concept as her main focus point throughout her critique. With Lacan’s key concepts on his mirror image theory discussed, it becomes apparent how Mulvey has incorporated his ideas. For example, her notion of the screen being the mirror, which in Lacan’s theory would be the reflection of the subject or infant. The idea of the ‘whole’ and ‘fragmented’ body also appears in Mulvey’s critique. The idea of the film being a tool in which spectators battle their own ego and constantly ponder with their own view of their self image the ‘I’ the reality image and the false inner image that is striven for in ones life. “Innenwelt and the Umwelt” is the term Lacan uses to describe this. The idea of the role of an actress in films also uses ideology from Lacan’s theory, and how the spectator reacts to the erotic significance of the actress whilst a relationship is formed with the male character in the film. Thus creating an idea of heteromorphic identification and its interaction with the battle with ones ego. Homeomorphic identification on the other hand, is the subject’s identification with its self, when for the first time sees its reflection and identifies the image as “me”. As we can see Mulvey uses Lacan’s image quite extensively in order to describe the relationship between psychology and film.
J. Lacan. ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’ 1977, Ecrites: A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 1977) 1-7.
L. Mulvey, ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, screen 16.3 (autumn 1975) 6-18.