Jacques Lacan (April 13, 1901 to September 9, 1981) was a towering figure in Parisian intellectual life for much of the twentieth century. Sometimes referred to as “the French Freud,” he was an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. His teachings and writings explored the significance of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious both within the theory and practice of analysis itself as well as in connection with a wide range of other disciplines. I frequently wonder if the virtual worlds of Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and all the rest have psychological parallels from which we can learn and Lacan was a man before his time. Reading and commenting online as frequently as I do reveals the dark side, snarky tweets and abrasive social media commentary, the shadowy flipside to otherwise socially well attuned personalities. Who we are online is the painting in the attic, the mirror crack’d from side to side. We drink Agatha Christie’s poisoned cocktail every day and things we dare not say in the real world we have no compunction in dumping into cyberspace – the bottomless well, slowly filling with the world’s bile.
We have access like a mirror image to our own black arts and sometimes use them inappropriately, as children examining their own reflection.
‘The Mirror Stage’ describes a pivotal stage in ego formation: the recognition of one’s own image in a mirror. Jacques Lacan theorised that the child, in apprehending his own reflection in a mirror, is captured by that image, seduced by its apparent perfection, its immeasurable potential. A child is endlessly fascinated by their own likeness in a mirror in a way that they are not when shown a photograph of themselves. The mirror image exists in a separate domain to its originator. Reflected, it deflects. Howsoever the child may try, they cannot delete or ruffle the image. It feels no pain when she beats it. I look more knowingly, as an adult, with adult eyes, yet the image unforgivingly projects my own feelings pitilessly back to me. Of itself, it feels no envy, no isolation, no love, no hate. It feels nothing, except what I project upon it: my own fears – of ridicule, contempt, my own yearning, even love. It appears to see the arrow that has missed the mark, the aspiration unachieved, the weakness and failure to do better. Does it see my sins as I see them? It weeps when I do, it laughs in synchrony with me. When I post on Facebook, or blog, it is, as it were, a paradigm of the mirror, suited to volatile outbursts of anger, love or other strong emotions. It is a virtual, imaginary space where normal sanctions do not apply and conflictual emotions vie for supremacy. I am allowed to be enraged, deviant, uncaring and immoral within my self-created vortex. When I write, I am speaking to a screen upon which I have projected something of my own, my own literary libido or lack thereof, of individuation of self, my creative juices smear its surface, dirtily. The image in the mirror is cracked, reflected by a thousand shards. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the image speaks: “you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” Whether someone reads it subsequently is initially not relevant. Sometimes, we – I and my imaginary readers – may aspire to be a community but usually it is as a large, ill-disciplined family, shackled pitilessly to the algorithms of personalized advertising to which we offer infantilised and hopeful complaints, appeals for validation and affirmation to Mama whom we neither know nor understand.
Even Archbishop Michael Curry, who went spectacularly off-script at Harry and Meghan’s wedding yesterday reminded the two billion or so hearers of his message that ‘…fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and e-mail and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other.’ Nobody laughed, because it’s true.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “the discovery and harnessing of fire was one of the great technological discoveries of human history”. Reprogramming, replace ‘fire’ with the Internet and the virtual image is complete.
Taking his words entirely out of context, let us invert the metaphor. Today is Pentecost Sunday. Let the fire fall. Let’s try to be less ‘socially dysfunctional’, kinder, willing to touch instead of instant messaging, drawing a curtain over the mirror images, Faustian bargains all, the Dorian Grays we try so hard to hide.