Friday, 24 February 2012

What is Madness? 3
Lacan's Imaginary

In this third post on Leader's book What is Madness? I turn to Lacan's concept of 'the imaginary'. Leader starts (p. 44) by discussing signes du mirroir - psychotic transformations in the relation to one's mirror image. A woman describes feeling how her image had become trapped in the mirror silver. When 'the mirror was moved from her home, she could feel this in her body, as if the mirror contained her.' He also describes cases of Cotard's delusion: 'some psychotic people describe their everyday existence, as if they are already dead, but their body hasn't realised this yet... The image of the body has become prised apart from any idea of conscious possession or control. These examples show how our bodies need to be unified and held together in an image.'

I don't yet follow the last sentence, mainly because I'm not yet sure how the word 'image' is being used, nor what it means for my body to be 'held together in' an image; Leader doesn't tell us. What he does explain is that the whole idea of 'the imaginary' refers (p. 45) to 'the body image'. A question is raised: How do we gain mastery of our motor functions? And an answer is proposed: We do so (p. 46) through identification with our own mirror image, or with 'the image of another child'. A curious example of this is then given: a child may learn to walk quicker if in the company of an older child. I think the idea is that the younger child, with an incomplete body schema, and hence relative lack of confidence and coordination, may unconsciously identify with the older child, thereby 'borrowing' as it were the confidence and motor habits which they have yet to fully integrate.

What isn't explained in any of this is how this amounts to identification with the 'image' of another child. For the most obvious reading of the identification Leader describes is one in which a child identifies simply with the other child, and not with an image of the child. My best guess, though, is that the talk of 'images' here is meant to refer simply to visual experience: it is not that I identify purely with the characterological constitution of the other (since that might not provide the integration I am after); rather I identify with the other under the singular aspect of their visible, integrated and bounded body. And this, presumably, is what bootstraps the development of my own ego identity: my body becomes 'unified and held together in an image'.

The discussion continues with a nice description of the origins of envy: we can at first, we are told, only find our wholeness in the (image of) the other. But this means - if we take our identification not simply from their visually apparent boundedness, but also from their embodied habits and routes of interest - that we will start to want what others want. Seemingly de trop envy of children for one another's having of toys is well known. We are also given a nice description of the pros and cons of this 'mirror phase': we gain greater integration of the body schema at the expense of (p. 47) developing an alienated and aggressive form of relationship with others. 'Identifying with the image promises to unify us, yet never entirely delivers, as the very thing that gives us unity takes it away.' A lovely example of this destructiveness is given: a young pretender gunslinger wants to emulate, but also to destroy, his more established rival, with the result that: 'an intervention from the outside [is necessary] to move beyond this destructive, lethal space where there is only the subject and their mirror image, the image of completeness that they aspire to'.

Later, in this section on the imaginary, Leader's writing slips into a kind of mistaking of co-incidence for causality which I have found so frustrating in his earlier work (p. 48): 'These words [uttered by parents of children] have a determinant power, and may shape lives, even if we remain unaware of their effects. A woman for whom kissing had a massive importance and who chose a career as a singer would remember, with surprise, that all she knew about her birth was the fact that her emergence into the world had been greeted with four words from her father: 'What a beautiful mouth.'' (To this I want to say: put your hand into a bag of marbles, and you may first pull out a red one, and then later on in the procedures pull out a couple more red ones. 'How can this be? But of course it must be because I first pulled out a red one - it must be shaping my later activity'...) Whilst it is surely possible - even perhaps normal - for children to grow unawares into their parents conceptions of them, the example doesn't help us: what we need is something which takes us beyond where we all start - the noticing of such co-incidences - into the causal connection between the parents' words and the child's character formation. A theory of identification would help, along, say, with observations on the subtle rewards that conforming to the desires and hopes of the parents brings.

Leader finishes his section on the imaginary with the claim that it is the symbolic order of words that frees us from the limited and potentially murder-inspiring self-understanding provided by our reflection or the 'image' of our counterparts. If what 'the imaginary' means is still obscure to us, we might gain some comfort now (p. 49) from 'the clearest illustration we could have' of it: Derrick Bird's family's burial of him with the brother he shot, the family who said 'They came into the world together, they'll go out of the world together.' Leader writes that it is 'as if the twins were just mirror images of each other ... Given this equation, the asymmetry opened up around the question of the legacy and the will makes more sense: as a sign of favouring the brother, the mirror relation was put in question. They were no longer equal. And hence all that was left, perhaps, was the murderous space between them.'

This, it seems to me, is really very interesting! Rather than just thinking of Bird as 'simply very angry' or as 'unintelligible because of having gone mad' we are invited to see his action as a result of functioning in a particular mode (somewhat like a Kleinian 'position'): i.e. functioning under the sway of the imaginary order. Bird murders because he is trapped within a frame of mind in which a driving preoccupation with the integrity of his identity is utterly to the fore, and murderous envy is seen as of a piece with this fundamental anxiety. Leader doesn't give us quite enough to start to spell out the scope of the imaginary and to explicate its explanatory value. (For example must identification (of an introjective, rather than an acquisitive projective, sort, for example) always lead to destructive envy? When will, and when won't, it? Are we sure that it is an ever present threat which can only be vitiated by the symbolic order? And why does the psychotic patient's image get trapped in the mirror? For example this looks like a breakdown of the imaginary itself, rather than any kind of failure of its softening by the symbolic.) But my experience now is that the pieces are at least starting to fall into place.