In his essay “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I,” Lacan began a lifelong effort to rescue psychoanalysis from what he saw as a mistaken conflation of the subject and the ego. Instead of objectifying the ego as a mechanism that accommodates the libidinal instincts to the superego’s demands, Lacan posits the ego as an alienated reflection of the subject’s split sense of self, figured for him or her in the child’s perception of its own reflection. The child’s ego emerges as a conscious expression of the relation between an ideal self and a perceived self, and an ontological confusion results as the child’s ego attempts to structure its perceiving self in relation to its perceived image.
By understanding identity as a function of the alienating and distorting perceiver, Lacan cleared the way for his observation that the structural laws determining the unconscious operate according to the same linguistic laws on which Saussure based his theory of the sign. For Saussure, the linguistic sign was composed of a signifier and a signified—a phonetic sound and its concept. The relation between these two components of the sign is arbitrary but fixed, as may be seen by the simple fact that the same concept is expressed by different words in different languages (“tree” and “arbre,” for example). From this theory, Lacan posits an infinite sliding of the signifier from under the signified through the displacements and...
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