‘What distinguishes the analyst is that he makes of a function that is common to all men a privileged use: when he becomes the bearer of the word. For this is indeed what the analyst does for the communication of the subject . . .’: Jacques Lacan.footnote1

It would be all too easy to say of Lacan that ‘the style is the man’ if, anticipating the suggestion, he had not himself questioned its application. He reminds us, in his ‘Ouverture’ to Ecrits,footnote2 that ‘man is no longer so secure a reference’; and as to the style, it is both everyman and no man, inasmuch as ‘it is not man that speaks, but in and through man it (ça) speaks, and man’s nature becomes interwoven with effects which exhibit the structure of language, of which he becomes the substance.’footnote3 As if to demonstrate this, Lacan’s style, by its patient, methodical use of every form of rhetoric, by its ceaseless ‘working-through’, and all the elaborate machinery of its progress to formal perfection, might well seem to mark a dissolution of ‘style’.footnote4

For mastery of style is but submission to it; as in the lapidary, the language of inscriptions, one of the oldest of the forms of style: The Unconscious is the discourse of the Other/ The Unconscious has the structure of language/ The desire of man is the desire of the Other/In the Unconscious it (ça) speaks/ Man is nothing but the place of return of a discourse/ The style is the man—the man to whom the discourse is addressed. (We may note here that the Other which appears in this sprinkling of Lacanian formulae is the name that Freud himself gave to the Unconscious: the Other scene, irreducibly other, unless we are to assume ‘the existence not only of a second consciousness in us, but of a third and fourth also, perhaps of an infinite series of states of consciousness, each and all unknown to us and to one another.’footnote5

Lacan came to Freud, as he tells us, ‘oddly yet necessarily’; nor did he come unprepared. His early workfootnote6, a case-study of paranoia, in which he ‘demonstrated that the persecutors were identical with the images of the ideal-egofootnote7, had led him to formulate certain original theoretical conceptions of the formation of the ego and of what he called, in a phrase intended to shock, the ‘paranoiac foundations’ of human knowledge. These early acquisitions were to remain constants of his theoretical framework, and he returned to them again and again, indefatigably reworking and consolidating them. The discovery of what is now well known among his co-workers and beyond as the Mirror-phase belongs to this cluster of his earliest theorizing; it was first formulated in 1936 in a paper read to the International Congress of Psychoanalysis held in Marienbad, and in 1949 he again made it the subject of an address to the Zurich Congress. A full translation of this latter address is given here. Owing to its rather condensed presentation, it is sometimes obscure; the main hope of this introduction is to highlight and clarify some of its essential points.

In The Unconscious (1915) Freud remarked that ‘we must learn to emancipate ourselves from our sense of the importance of that symptom which consists in “being conscious”’. Yet, he was, in The Ego and the Id, to assign to the ego as the perception-consciousness system a privileged synthesizing position. More explicitly, as Lacan points out, ‘the development of Freud’s view on the ego led him to two apparently contradictory formulations.’footnote8 For, on the one hand, in the topographical theory, the ego takes sides with the object, and resists the id, i.e. the combination of drives governed solely by the reality-principle; on the other, in the theory of narcissism, the ego takes sides against the object: the concept of libidinal economy. What relation does the ‘libidinal subject’ have to the ego? Lacan takes a first step towards the resolution of the contradiction by showing that the libidinal subject and the ego have this at least in common that they are both equally remote from ‘reality’ naively understood as a perception held up to consciousness. At the libidinal level, psychoanalytic experience shows that ‘we can specify concretely the oral, anal, and genital relationships which the subject establishes with the outer world’footnote9; or, as a pupil of Lacan expresses it, ‘when we speak of oral, anal, phallic, we are defining the labels which the ego assumes in order to situate itself.’footnote10 At the level of ‘knowledge’ of reality, there is a similar formalism. What Lacan calls ‘paranoiac human knowledge’ has the character of a ‘formal stagnation’: ‘it constitutes the ego and objects under attributes of permanence, identity and substantiality, in short, as entities or ‘things’ which are quite different from those Gestalten which we can in experience isolate within the shifting fields of force of animal desire.’footnote11

Thus, in man, libidinal relationships no less than knowledge, ‘in its most general formula’, are seen to operate at a significant remove from ‘natural reality’; the ‘objectification’ which they presuppose and exemplify is incompatible with the phenomenology of lived experience, e.g. of perception, in which it is not solid and stable ‘objects’ that are given, but a series of blurred, overlapping profiles, such as can be apprehended in cubist paintings’ attempts to represent them. The ‘thing’footnote12 is not the ‘real’. But how shall we account for this break with the ‘real’ and the character of ‘autonomy’ which human knowledge consequently assumes?

Lacan’s explanation makes use of the concept of ‘objectivating identification’, and of the Imago as formative of identification. Psychoanalysis alone has succeeded in giving an adequate account of the concrete reality underlying those mental phenomena called images because it alone has been in a position to discover their formative function in the subject. It shows that ‘if current images determine certain individual directions of the drives, it is because they are variations on those specific Images—answering, in our view, to the old name of Imago—which constitute the matrices for the “instincts” themselves.’footnote13 We shall see that for Lacan the ego itself is constituted both as to its energy and as to its form in ‘that erotic relationship in which the human individual fastens himself to an image which alienates him from himself’footnote14, so that ‘man’s ego is for ever irreducible to his lived identity.’