The mirror stage, occurs when an infant, beginning at six months, discovers its own reflection in a mirror. The baby then turns toward the adult who is holding it and entreats that adult to confirm with his or her expression what it perceives in the mirror, namely the image of a mastery not yet achieved.
It was an observation of Henri Wallon's (1931) in the context of his work on the development of the child's conception of its "own body" that inspired the adoption of the term mirror stage and its elaboration by Lacan in particular. Confronted by its own image in a mirror, a six-month-old human will grow excited, fascinated, whereas a chimpanzee of the same age will lose interest as soon as it realizes that the reflection is illusory.
Lacan gave special importance to this moment where the Other confirms that the mirror image is one's own, for at this moment, the infant supposedly becomes conscious of its body as a totality even before successfully integrating the motor functions and achieving real mastery of that body.
The concept of the mirror stage was Lacan's first formal contribution to psychoanalytic theory, presented at the Fourteenth International Psychoanalytic Congress in Marienbad in 1936. The text of his presentation was not published at the time, but he revisited the issue in a paper published in 1949.
Calling it a "stage" stressed the important place this moment was assigned in mental development. When Lacan said that it occurred between six and eighteen months, this was one of the very rare occasions when he referred to developmental chronology. That said, he also said that the mirror "serves as a prototype that reveals other relations between the subject and his image as the latter is the ego's" (1954).
Between 1936 and 1962, Lacan's concept of the mirror stage underwent a significant reorientation. Early on, Lacan was influenced by Gestalt psychology, and what interested him, as it did a number of ethologists, was the power of the image itself as a finished form, pregnant with meaning, capable of sustaining the baby's identity. Basically, he wanted to trace the effects of the imaginary on the formation of the ego and the body, and the relationship with the counterpart.
When Lacan introduced the concept of the "Other," however, the mirror stage came to indicate how the founding role of the Other's gaze works to form the subject's mental apparatus. Thenceforward the very possibility of the mirror stage presupposed a symbolic operation. Were such operations lacking, the mirror stage would not occur, as happens with the autistic child, in whom there is no relationship in the Imaginary either to a body image or to any kind of counterpart. Beginning with his seminar on the transference (1991 [1960-61]), Lacan took the mirror as a metaphor for the Other's gaze.
Winnicott (1967) extended the Lacanian notion of the mirror stage by emphasizing the part played by the face, and especially the gaze of the mother, as a mirror for the child.
See also: Body image; Ego; Ego ideal/ideal ego; Ethology and psychoanalysis; Identification; Identificatory project; Imaginary identification/symoblic identification; Imaginary, the (Lacan); Infant development; Infantile psychosis; L and R schemas; Narcissism; Optical schema; Self consciousness; Self image; Self representation; Visual.
Lacan, Jacques (2002). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I. InÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1949)
——. (1978). Le Séminaire-Livre II, Le Moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse (1954-55). Paris: Seuil.
——. (1991 [1960-61]). Le Transfert (Jacques-Alain Miller, Ed.). Paris: Seuil.
Laznik, Marie-Christine. (1993). Pour une théorie lacanienne des pulsions. Discours psychanalytique, 10.
Wallon, Henri (1931, Nov-Dec.). Comment se développe chez l'enfant la notion du corps propre. Journal de Psychologie. 705-748.
Winnicott, D. W. (1967). Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development. In Peter Lomas, (Ed.), The predicament of the family: A psycho-analytical symposium. London: Hogarth and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Reprinted in D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock, 1971)
Muller, John. (1985). Lacan's mirror stage. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 5, 233-252.