Imaginary (Compendium)

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Imaginary The imaginary in Lacan's theory immediately invokes a set of characteristic terms, most of which are already present in his article on the mirror stage (1949). This set comprises the notions of Gestalt (ideal), ego and identification, lure and méconnaissance, reciprocity, counterpart, object, (paranoiac) knowledge and aggressivity. Of the three registers (or orders) of the subject, the imaginary is the first to enter on stage both in Lacan's writings and teachings. It dominates his thinking until the mid-1950s.

The imaginary as such is not a Freudian concept, although Lacan cautions us not to think that the function of the imaginary is absent in Freud's texts. In his elaboration of the imaginary, Lacan makes use of at least three major references, namely the notion of Gestalt, animal ethology and Freud's early theory on narcissism. For Lacan, the function of the Gestalt in animal behaviour, which presents itself par excellence in the behaviour of the animal couple, allows a much clearer structuring of the function of the imaginary in man than was possible for Freud. To illustrate this function of the imaginary in animal behaviour, Lacan takes the example of the stickleback (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 137). Gestalten come into play in releasing the complementary sexual behaviour of the male and the female stickleback; the male or the female is captivated by a Gestalt. Typical for animal behaviour is that the animal subject is completely identical to the image governing the release of a specific motor behaviour. Man's relation to the unitary image (Gestalt) is fundamentally different. This is linked to the fact that man comes into the world in a structurally premature state, which is mastered at an early stage — the mirror stage — by means of the identification with the unitary image of the body.

The mirror stage constitutes a first structuring moment for the human subject. It also functions as the prime reference in distinguishing between the imaginary relation in animal and in man. 'In man, the imaginary is reduced, specialized, centred on the specular image' (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 282).

The assumption of the unitary image of the body, meaning that the human subject recognizes the specular image as being its own, presents the anticipation of real mastery. Both anticipation and recognition are crucial in man's relation to the specular image. Combined, they typify the imaginary as illusory and alienating - one recognizes and assumes an attainable totality. It is important to add that this recognition of the specular image is a function of something outside the imaginary relation, namely the symbolic. Lacan accentuates the difference between animal and man in still another way: For the animal there is a limited number of pre-established correspondences between its imaginary structure and whatever interests it in its Umwelt ... In man, by contrast, the reflection in the mirror indicates an original noetic possibility, and introduces a second narcissism. Its fundamental pattern is immediately the relation to the other. (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 125) This takes us back to the Freudian reference of narcissism, including both the formation of the ego and the object. In Lacan's view, the specular image as a total unity functions as a primordial form of the ego, which 'simply because it is an image ... is ideal ego' (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 282). At this point, Lacan also refers to the notion of specular Urbild. Conceived as such, the ego is constituted by an alienating identification with a Gestalt - of the body or the other - functioning as an ideal image. The ego is an imaginary function serving (imaginary) mastery. In linking the constitution of the ego to the relation to the other, the ego is defined as the identification with the other. This has a certain implication for the relation to the object: ... [man] only perceives the unity of this specific image [of the body] from the outside, and in an anticipated manner. Because of this double relation which he has with himself, all the objects of his world are always structured around the wandering shadow of his own ego. (Seminar II, 1954-55, p. 166) Hence, the specular image (of the other) is both the framework of the ego and the object. Imaginary 89 Lacan's further development of the dialectics between ego, other and object as being a function of rivalry and competition is clearly influenced by Hegel. Here the (Hegelian) notion of desire comes into play. Since the ego is constituted in reference to the other, whatever the ego is oriented towards will depend on what this other is oriented towards. 'An apprehended, desired object, it's either he or I who will get it, it has to be one or the other. And when the other gets it, it's because it belongs to me' (Seminar II, 1954-55, p. 51). All this implies that the object of man's desire is essentially an object desired by someone else. Thus far, it has become apparent that the imaginary relation is always a (specular) relation between similar or equal others. This means that in a certain sense the notion of 'sameness' is central. This is also invoked in the characterization of the imaginary in terms of reciprocity, and symmetrical and interchangeable positions. Lacan illustrates this by means of what he calls the phenomenon of transitivism, in which the infant takes as equivalent his own action and that of the other. For instance, an infant saying 'Paul hit me', whereas it was he who hit Paul. In discussing transitivism, Lacan refers to the well-known 1927 study by Charlotte Bühler. With all this, the coordinates of the relation between the imaginary and aggressivity are given. Aggressivity always refers to the imaginary register. In his 1948 article on aggressivity, Lacan posits that aggressivity is the 'correlative tendency of a mode of identification that we call narcissistic' (Écrits, 1977, p. 16), thus linking aggressivity to the imaginary relation. This link can be interpreted in two ways. First, the constitution of the ego implies a certain satisfaction as compensation for the original organic disarray of the human subject. However, the tension implied in the relation between the initial fragmentation (original disarray) and the unifying image also becomes a source of aggressivity in the sense that the image that shapes the subject also structures the subject as rival for himself. Furthermore, since the narcissistic identification mediates the imaginary relation, rivalry is at the core of the imaginary relation to the other as well. Thus, aggressivity is always present in the relation to the similar other, which is perceived as ideal. The other is always one step ahead of the subject, and is thus seen as a rival. At this point we 90 A Compendium of Lacanian Terms can more clearly refer to animal ethology to render the functioning of aggressivity, as essentially different from aggression. The function of the imaginary in animals makes it possible that a struggle between two males, that is, between two rivals, is not turned into a real struggle which would lead to the destruction of one of the animals. By transposing the conflict on to the imaginary plane, real destruction is prevented. Here it becomes clear that aggressivity has nothing to do with aggression. 'At the limit, virtually, aggressivity turns into aggression ... aggression is an existential act linked to an imaginary relation' (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 177). Second, aggressivity emerges in the situation of the ego encountering another subject like itself, giving rise to a desire for the object of this other's desire. Here also, the potential struggle is a function of something the other has, namely the object of his desire. Thus, aggressivity is linked to the object which is always the object of a counterpart, and therefore in the logic of the imaginary, an object that belongs to the ego. According to Lacan, the human object differs fundamentally from the object of the animal in that it is 'originally mediated through rivalry, through the exacerbation of the relation to the rival ... man's desire is the desire of the other' (Seminar I, 1953-54, pp. 176-7). Hence, aggressivity, rivalry and desire are closely linked within the frame of the imaginary relation. The imaginary is also linked by Lacan to knowledge (connaissance). This link, which is a function of Lacan's critique of the Cartesian cogito, is centred on the ego's relation to reality and is typified by Lacan as miscognition (méconnaissance) and as being paranoiac in nature. Although based on the recognition of the specular image, the ego can be conceived as 'a capacity to fail to recognize (méconnaissance)' (Seminar I, 1953-54, p. 153). Indeed, one of the fundamental characteristics of the specular image is that the reflection in the mirror is an inversion of what stands before the mirror. This implies that there is a primitive distortion and thus miscognition in the ego's experience of reality. Another way to understand this miscognition, is to link it to the alienating nature of the ego. In identifying with the image of the other, the subject inevitably fails to recognize many things about itself. In the same sense, all knowledge deriving from the imaginary relation — the ego's relation to the world of objects and similar others — is a function of miscog- J Imaginary 91 nition, since this very relation is based on the ego's miscognition of its own alienating nature. In his article on the mirror stage, Lacan speaks of human knowledge as paranoiac in nature. The term 'paranoiac knowledge' refers to what is found in paranoia (e.g., in the external persecution and observation) and which is also detectable in the imaginary relation, especially in the phenomenon of transitivism. It concerns the captivation by the image of the other — one recognizes the image of the other as one's own — and thus again reinforces the imaginary alienation of the ego. During the period 1953 to 1974, the imaginary maintained importance, especially in relation to the signified and its effect; see for example, 'The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis' (1953); 'On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis' (1955-56); 'The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud' (1957); 'The direction of the treatment and the principles of its power' (1958). All are published in the English translation of Écrits (1977) and The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1978). However, from the late 1950s onwards the ideas of the symbolic relation or the radical Other and the subject as subject of the signifier occupy a more central position. This does not mean that Lacan suddenly ceases to acknowledge the importance of the imaginary, or that the imaginary is depreciated or pushed aside. This should be stressed, since the imaginary is often regarded in a pejorative way for being pure 'illusion'. Although the imaginary is indeed essentially linked to miscognition, to mirage and thus also to 'false reality', it is nonetheless a 'verified reality' (Seminar II, 1954-55, p. 244), mediating man's relation to similar others and to the objects of his desire. One thing is certain: without the imaginary there can be no human reality as such. Moreover, the imaginary is the only 'consistency' man has. This is developed by Lacan in one of his later seminars, on R.S.I. (1974-75). As far as the imaginary is concerned, Lacan here refers to his earliest formulations on the subject, by defining it as essentially departing from the body as a reflection of the organism. This seminar also illustrates that Lacan's conception of the imaginary does not fundamentally alter over the years. In this sense, it indeed functions as a consistency. 92 A Compendium of Lacanian Terms The function of the imaginary is always related to the other two registers used by Lacan, namely, the symbolic and the real. See also: aggressivity, desire, ideal ego, mirror stage, real, symbolic Other terms: ego, identification References Lacan, J. (1975-76) [1974-75] `Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Book XXII: Réel, symbolique, imaginaire (Real, symbolic, imaginary)'. In Ornicar? (2, 3, 4) 1975, (5) 1975-76. Lacan, J. (1977) [1948] 'Aggressivity in psychoanalysis'. In Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1977) [1949] `The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience' in Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1977) [1953] `The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalyis'. In Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1977) [1957] 'On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis'. In Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1977) [1957] `The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud'. In Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1977) [1958] `The direction of the treatment and the principles of its power'. In Écrits: A Selection (trans. A. Sheridan). London: Tavistock. Lacan, J. (1978) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (trans. Alan Sheridan). New York: W.W. Norton. Lacan, J. (1988) [1975] The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique I953-I954. (ed. J. A. Miller; trans. J. Forrester). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lacan, J. (1988) [1978] The Seminar o fJacques Lacan. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. I954-I955. (ed. J. A. Miller; trans. S. Tomaselli). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Katrien Libbrecht