Friday, June 24, 2011

Five Wounds: Cuckoo and Lacan's Mirror Phase

I recently read the Icon Books title Introducing Lacan, and I was struck by the description of Lacan's theory of the 'mirror phase', an elaboration of Freud's ideas on ego formation in the infant. The description corresponds exactly to (it mirrors?) the characterisation of Cuckoo in Five Wounds. Cuckoo is a man with no face, or rather a face made of wax, which he reshapes constantly in imitation of those whose identity he wishes to steal. He is also obsessed with his reflection, with which he can never fully identify.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

Now here are some passages from Introducing Lacan (pp. 21-23):

The child identifies with an image outside himself, be it an actual mirror image or simply the image of another child. The apparent completeness of this image gives [him] a new mastery over the body. .... 'But all this at a price [says a picture of a child standing before a mirror in the Icon book]. If I am in the place of another child, when he's struck, I will cry. If he wants something, I'll want it too, because I am trapped in his place. I am trapped in an image fundamentally alien to me, outside me'. .... Lacan shows how this alienation in the image corresponds with the ego: the ego is constituted by an alienating identification, based on an initial lack of completeness in the body and nervous system.

There is a broader point here about how symbolism works: I mean symbolism in a general sense, rather than Lacan's more technical definition of what he calls the 'symbolic register', which for him complements the 'imaginary register' ('imaginary' from 'image'). For Lacan, language is the essential element that distinguishes the symbolic from the imaginary, so that in the symbolic register, the relation to the image will be structured by language (Introducing Lacan, p. 47). Cuckoo, by contrast, remains in the pre-linguistic, imaginary register, where the reflected image of his face cannot be described (in words or otherwise).

What I mean by 'symbolic' is rather the way in which Lacan's theory of the mirror phase describes an ongoing process (of ego formation) via an abstraction. It uses a single, signifying idea - the child looking at its own reflection - to stand for that broader process. The fictional character of Cuckoo then reverses that operation. I mean that Cuckoo's predicament takes Lacan's symbolic abstraction, and makes it both literal and definitive, so that it actually excludes other possible ways of understanding the nature of ego formation.

N.B. I am a big fan of the Icon Introducing series, which I am interested in for theoretical as well as pragmatic reasons: i.e. I am interested in how these unique attempts to present abstract ideas through a comic strip format work, beyond the information actually conveyed in any specific title. In this, they are natural successors to seventeenth-century emblem books. More on this in a future post perhaps ....

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