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In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the specular image (exemplified by the mirror image) is a key component in the process of imaginary identification. In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, specularisation is a term used by André Green and Luce Irigaray to refer to the constitution of the subject’s place in the visual field, both as a desiring subject and desired object.

In ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function’, Jacques Lacan suggests that the human child’s capacity to recognise his own image in the mirror is fundamental for the formation of human subjectivity (E, 93). Lacan argues that the capacity to recognise one’s ‘specular image’ (here meant literally as one’s reflection in the mirror) is the most primary form of identification, ‘in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image’ (E, 94):

The jubilant assumption of his specular image by the kind of being – still trapped in his motor impotence and nursling dependence – the little man is at the infans stage thus seems to me to manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject (E, 94; cf. E, 113).

The specular image is thus the result of a primary act of identification, in which ‘the subject anticipates the maturation of his power in an image’ (ibid).

But the specular image for Lacan is already in this early text more than another name for a literal mirror-image. Rather, the latter is a privileged instance of a ‘gestalt’ form of specular image. Lacan appeals to the language of Gestalt psychology to explain how the specular image functions as a ‘gestalt’ or a priori spatial figure, with a ‘pregnancy’ [Fr. prégnance; Ger. Prägnanz] that ‘should be considered linked to the species’. The child’s experience of the world is shaped by this primary structure of visual anticipation, which in turn provides the conditions for the crucial experience of its own reflection (metaphorically speaking) in the look of the other. Lacan qualifies his reference to Gestalt psychology by specifying the distinctive role played by the specular image in the case of the human child. He suggests that the paths opened up in the spheres of intersubjectivity and communication by the human child’s adoption of a projective image do more than merely compensate for its particular initial motor deficits in the period of dependency on the primary Other. ‘In comparison with the still very profound lack of coordination in his own motor functioning, this gestalt is an ideal unity, a salutary imago’ (E, 113). Thus for Lacan, this initial appearance of an ‘ideal unity’ in the flux of appearances provides essential support for the child to reorganise its visual field around its relation to others in the external world, and deserves to be analysed in its own right as a fundamental structure of the ‘imaginary’ order occupied by humans (as opposed to animals, for which ‘gestalt’ forms have not yet detached themselves from the guide rails of instinct).

The specular image, when taken on its own terms, is double-edged. While the specular image can serve as a support to ‘symbolize the I’s mental permanence’, at the same time it ‘prefigures’ the ‘alienating destination’ of subjectivity in complete objectification (E, 95). It is both the means of projection into a social world, while also being a way of becoming alienated in the images projected within that world. Identification with specular images involves projecting oneself in the social field (initially into the primary scopic field of the parental Others). Identifying with images involves running the gauntlet of specular ‘capture’ (E, 114. cf. E, 832). If imaginary identification occurs in an ‘unmediated’ manner, it tips over into delusion and madness (E, 171-2). Hence the importance of the subordination of the specular image to the structures of the symbolic order: without the fixed determinations of the symbolic order, the intrinsic ambiguity of the specular image could not be controlled. The psychoanalyst attempts to intervene in the specular field of the patient’s identifications by operating at the symbolic level, working upon the recurrent signifiers and social relations that determine their identifications.

In writings from the mid-sixties such as ‘Position of the Unconscious’ (1964), Lacan continues to set aside a pivotal role for the specular function. He defines ‘the ego’s imaginary capture by its specular reflection, and in the function of misrecognition that remains tied to it’ as ‘the only homogeneous function of consciousness’ (E, 832). However, due to his increased focus on the basic mechanisms of primary repression, Lacan began to distinguish between an ‘unspecularisable’ component of desired objects on the one hand, and their ‘specular image’ on the other. For instance, in the 1963 Introduction to the never-given ‘Names of the Father’ seminar, Lacan distinguishes between truly enigmatic objective phenomena in the field of desire, embodied by the various quasi-objects he calls objets petit a (for instance, the mouth and gaze), and the ‘complement’ of these objects, ‘the specular image’.1 Thus in the scopophiliac drive, ‘in which the subject encounters the world as a spectacle that he possesses’, the subject is made ‘victim of a lure, through which what issues forth from him and confronts him is not the true petit a, but its complement, the specular image’ (symbolised as i(a)). During 1965-69, the Cahiers pour l’Analyse period, Lacan continued to meticulously develop new formal and topological schematisations of the ‘non-specularisable’ and ‘specularisable’ aspects of the objet petit a.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

There are two main treatments of the concept of specularisation in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, by André Green and Luce Irigaray.

In his ‘L’objet (a) de J. Lacan, sa logique, et la théorie freudienne’ (CpA 3.2), André Green gives a detailed analysis of the specularisable and non-specularisable aspects of the objet petit a. He observes that the non-specularisable aspect of the object of desire arises from the appearance of the latter ‘in the form of the object of lack’ (CpA 3.2:20/169). At its most basic level, the objet petit a gives form to ‘what is missing in the Other’, thus escaping specularisation in principle, or any attempt to give it ‘a consistent reflection in reality’. But the desiring subject is nevertheless compelled to specularise the object of lack, thus short-circuiting the bind in which it finds itself. The non-specularisable nature of the objet petit a is ultimately responsible for the fascination that the object provokes. Green indicates that specularisation and non-specularisation provide the poles for a libidinal account of perception.

Green remarks that Lacan’s conception of the mirror-image (the ‘specular image’) is not straightforward. He cites Lacan’s thoughts in his 1962 Seminar on Identification, where the primary identification of the mirror image gives access to ‘another object that is not the same’ (28/178). From this perspective, the specular image is itself caught up in a ‘narcissistic dialectic’ that is ultimately ‘limited by the phallus operating in the form of lack’.

Luce Irigaray gives the most extensive analysis of the concept of specularisation in the Cahiers in her ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire’ (CpA 3.3). She presents an initial definition of ‘specular experience’ as ‘the space of a possible reprise’ of the child’s first fantasmatic and imaginary attempts at integrating body and language on entering the symbolic order (CpA 3.3:45; trans. 14). But more specifically, ‘specularisation’ appears to refer to the unfolding of a dialectic proper to the lived field of visual appearances. Specularisation involves the ‘unveiling of a second imaginary’ internal to the structure of symbolic communication (45/15). Irigaray shows how specularisation has its own distinctive logic and dialectic in the process of the formation of subjectivity.

Subjects (male or female) entering the specular field might initially be able to extract enjoyment [jouissance] from the manipulation of ‘a gaze that can open or close at will upon the spectacle – unlike the ears which cannot refuse to hear’. But specularisation is determined by a ‘non-specularisable’ unconscious that acts as ‘the guardian of specularisation’ (ibid). Alluding to Miller’s account of the movement of summoning and annulling the radical zero in the operation of suture, Irigaray situates specularisation as a repetition within the visual and libidinal field of the same primordial movement:

Witness to its inadequacy, it [specularisation] ensures the movement of return, and the ‘flickering in eclipses’ [‘battement en éclipses’] of the subject who, at all times, wants to vanish in order to reappear as ‘one’ [un], in a repetition irreducible to all temporal continuity, or to an infinity other than a denumerable, iterative succession (46/15).

Specular experience contains its own specific version of the exclusion of the subject. The ‘absence of the subject from its own image’ gives specularisation a ‘de-realizing power’ [pouvoir déréalisant] that gives imaginary substance to the empty, placeholding subject generated by the symbolic order (46/15, trans. modified).

The specular field would thus appear to be intrinsically unstable and the subject of the specular field yielded up to an endless ‘parade of captures’ (47/16). However, there is one way in which the impersonal subjects generated thus far can ‘escape from social subjection’: by entering into a new, asymmetrical sexual relationship, extrapolated from the very form of specularisation. The woman must now play the role of mirror, with the man reflecting himself in and through her. Irigaray suggests a ‘new version’ of the Biblical myth of the Fall. ‘Man recognises his own image in woman and thinks himself master of the universe. The day when Adam took a companion, not really other, but drawn from himself, is the day that he separated himself from God, and denied his subjection to the Word’ (47/16). Thus female subjects find themselves having to occupy a position as a mirroring, specular other, the provider of a fantasmatic complement that compensates for the male subject’s failure to find a secure identity within linguistic and social structures. Irigaray sets the stage here for her analysis of specularisation as a dominant trope of Western philosophy in Speculum of the Other Woman (1974).

Irigaray suggests that ‘specular identification’ has a ‘seductive’ power for both men and women; a woman may choose to take on her role of being a specular image. For the specular relationship to maintain itself, it must be founded on second-person relations (between two ‘yous’). The presence of a ‘you’ in a specular love relationship allows for the couple to perform an ‘exclusion of the world’. But the specular relation will always block the possibility of symbolic communication between the partners. Both parties are inevitably reduced to ‘feign[ing] possession’ of their image (50/19). Unlike in ‘the signifying chain of discourse, specular communication involves no possibility of mediation or escape’, and hence must be overcome through psychoanalytic intervention in the signifying chain.


  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. London: Athlone, 1985.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function’ [1949], in Écrits [1966], trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Presentation on Psychical Causality’ [1946], Écrits.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis’ [1948], Écrits.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Introduction to the Names-of-the-Father Seminar’ [1963], trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, October 40, Spring 1987.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Position of the Unconscious’ [1964], Écrits.


1. Lacan, ‘Introduction to the Names-of-the-Father’ Seminar [1963], in October 40, 86.