The construction of the homo alienatis



Homo alienatis, an antipode of homo economist that inhabits economic science

In this article, we intend to make a critical comment on Jacques Lacan's famous thesis found in the text The mirror stage as formative of the function of the self as revealed in the psychoanalytic experience, made known in a communication made to the XVI International Congress of Psychoanalysis, in Zurich, on July 17, 1949. In this writing, the French psychoanalyst strives to show how the first moment of the formation of the self occurs, the one in which the infant supposedly recognizes himself as a single body and, thus, distinct from other bodies and things in the environment.

The content of the criticism is already evidently announced by the title: the psychoanalytic experience aims at the individual – above all at the family – and tends to build a foundational anthropology. The one engendered by the creative mind of Jacques Lacan – we believe – should be known by the name proposed here: homo alienatis. What follows is not based, however, on this kind of experience, because it is written from the perspective of the critique of political economy.

Something similar can also be observed in political economy which, already in the XNUMXth century, built the homo economist that became perfectum in neoclassical theory. In the case under consideration here, this is the homo alienatis – an antipode of the one that inhabits economic science. If the latter endeavors to apprehend the phenomena of the capital system as such, the former aims to understand and deal with the psychic suffering of social individuals who live in a society based on that system.

If the first homo mentioned gives form to individualism coming from utilitarianism, the second comes from a development of French structuralism. Despite the similarity mentioned, as such, they are configured as constructions that repel each other, which are considered extremes between them. They present themselves as opposites, but they actually consist of interversions that are based, as will be shown later, on a real contradiction. Now, such interventions occur in the field of logical-formal discourses that do not abandon the claim to be scientific – or at least not to be anti-scientific.

It should be noted, right from the start, that this elaboration by Jacques Lacan presents itself as a way of answering a specific question: how an “I” proton is formed in the child, in every child. And this question appears important because Jacques Lacan, through a theoretical development, will consider it as the nucleus of the formation of the imaginary. The self as an autonomous individuality is, for this author, just a constitutive illusion of the human psyche, even though it appears necessary for its development.

It should be noted that this “fiction”, the vision of oneself as a single entity, does not simply consist of a distinction between oneself and others, as this – obviously – is already found in the animal world. Jacques Lacan, for this reason, distinguishes the monkey's offspring from the human child, that is, from the “child of man”. Furthermore, as he explicitly states, the mirror stage aims to present the human being in a way that is “opposed to any philosophy directly arising from the cogito”. The article therefore also contains a classical philosophical pretension since it wants to understand the constitution of the social individual, not as a posited being or as a presupposed being, but – and this will still need to be clarified – as a permanent lack-to-be.

Two points deserve to be noted at this point in the exposition: (a) Jacques Lacan is directly opposed to the notion of subject as it appears in Descartes' philosophy, but continues to use the term normally, seeking to give it another meaning.[I] In any case, the subject of Lacanian theory is truly a non-subject, a subject denied as such. It is, therefore, an intervention engendered within the scope of structuralism that comes about through the formal suppression, within the scope of theory, of the internal contradiction that marks the modern individual: behold, in the society that produces him, there is a subjected subject , but while individualism affirms only the subject, structuralism only posits the subject, the non-subject.

(b) As the historical anchorage of the modern individual is suppressed, Lacan's derivation of consciousness of one's own body is done through a conjecture in which one of the poles of the contradiction is formally absent. Now, this is why the answer he gives depends on the construction of a foundation first; This is how and only how understanding can think about human beings in society.

In any case, the subject-form, which appears in modern philosophy, is not an arbitrary invention, but becomes a categorical expression – albeit partial – of the really existing subject subject, as required and posed by the logic of reproduction. of the capitalist mode of production. It is not identified with the social individual, as it consists of a function that the latter exercises as a support for the commodity, money and capital forms. This “subject”, which political economy exalts and which psychoanalysis erases, is in any case a counterpart of the automatic subject, that is, of the accumulative compulsion of capital. The latter requires the concurrence of a subordinate agency, that is, a formally rational agent, but also driven by an equally compulsive unconscious.

The mirror stadium

Despite the fact that Jacques Lacan's thesis is very well known in the field of psychology, one cannot escape presenting it briefly here, since this short article is addressed not only to occasional visitors to the area, but also to potential interested parties in other fields. of social sciences. Here, then, is the summary.

The child is born without knowing who he is, but he will acquire a vision of himself in the course of his development and in interaction with the environment in which he lives, which includes others and many things. Jacques Lacan conceives this growth as a succession of stages. To think about the first of them, he conceives an identification problem that consists of showing how the child supposedly conquers the image of his own body. He assumes, then, that the newborn in his first months, even before he begins to speak language, is distressed like his body, as he perceives it as dispersed or even broken down: this is, for him, an inborn vision, a common phantasmal image, which appears in the mind of every child, even when they are very young, when they have not yet entered the world of language.

How, then, do you overcome this primordial condition and come to feel like a totality? His answer is found in a very important passage in the aforementioned writing: “This development is experienced as a temporal dialectic that decisively projects the formation of the individual into history: the mirror stage is a drama whose internal impulse rushes from insufficiency to anticipation – and which creates for the subject, caught in the trap of spatial identification, the fantasies that follow one another from a shattered image of the body to a form of its totality”.

Therefore, the excerpt already emphasizes that the mediation that allows the child to go from a fragmented image to a unitary image of their own body is an object, an artifact of civilization, a mirror.[ii] As this object is obviously contingent, Lacanian psychoanalysts add that the mirror is just a metaphor for something that necessarily supervenes in human experience, that is, the baby's vision of himself, for example, in the mother's eyes. Although this point is very doubtful, it is only a symptom of the main difficulty.

To better understand what comes next, it is necessary to be surprised by the term “temporal dialectics” that the French master uses to describe the movement that supposedly goes from dispersion to corporeal totality. Now, the adjective “temporal” reveals that it does not refer to Hegel’s conceptual dialectic, which has already absorbed temporality; It also indicates that it uses the term in the vulgar sense of an interaction between parties that come together in certain circumstances and that are strange to each other.

The child and his image in the mirror are the two parts and they form a game of reflection that supposedly has three moments: in the first, the child sees his image in the mirror and thinks that there is a real being there that causes him, eventually , some excitement. In the second, she realizes that the other child in the mirror is not real, but a simple image. Thus, she intuitively learns the difference between being and appearing. In the third, the sequence that produces self-identification is completed, that is, it becomes aware of itself.[iii] at least as a body: thus finally comes to see that the other is an image of herself. At this moment, according to Lacan's genius, the child overcomes the idea of ​​dispersion of his body and starts to consider himself as a totality.

Apparently for this reason, the mirror stage functions as a precondition or first moment of primary narcissism and, at the same time, as a source of aggressiveness. And here it is manifested once again that Jacques Lacan wants to build an anthropology, a first theory of human nature, on the basis of which a conservative social and political theory can be built.

Now, it is necessary to see more clearly that, in this construction of understanding, a certain understanding of the self as the forming nucleus of a proto-subject is implicit. As identification came through an image – and not through a process of becoming based on family social relationships – and as an image is something virtual and not real, this identity acquires the character of imaginary formation. Let it be clear, therefore: for Jacques Lacan, it is an “ontological structure of the human world” that is characterized above all by opposing any understanding of the self through the Cartesian cogito, which, as we know, comes from to be the exemplary figure of the non-alienated “I”. Therefore, we do not have a determined negation here, but rather an absolute negation.

Attempt criticism

This proto-subject is, for the French psychoanalyst, “the symbolic matrix in which the 'I' precipitates itself in a primordial form, before objectifying itself in the dialectic of identification with the other and before language restores to it, in the universal, its subject function”. This proto-subject, therefore, is formed before the child has entered the world of language. However, a doubt arises here: will it be possible to obtain this self-awareness, even if in a primary and insufficient form, that is, merely bodily, in this autarchic way?

Fredric Jameson, in a famous text that presents this theory by Jacques Lacan, after recognizing that the “self-image” is a first stage in the development of the psyche, recommends that it not be taken as an “identity in the psychological sense or even in the sense of a “Hegelian self-conscious reflexivity”. Now, the real problem consists precisely in separating a single process into two moments, thus constructing a disjunction, the imaginary and the symbolic. Because, as he himself warns, “to speak of the imaginary independently of the symbolic is to perpetuate an illusion that one can have a pure experience of each of them”.[iv]

Now, at least one author has questioned the rationality of this supposed precipitation. Richard A. Lynch pointed out that Jacques Lacan, by thinking in the indicated way, had inverted the logic of self-formation as can be inferred from Hegel's best-known work: “I will make [in this article] an objection to the Lacanian mirror stage, arguing that Social interaction and the infant's recognition of others are prerequisites for his ability to recognize himself in the mirror image. In the course of his argument, this critic points out that the “mirror stage is asocial”, but that despite this, it participates in a psychoanalytic knowledge that intends to respect the social character of the formation of the human being.

Therefore, following the words of the German philosopher, the vision of oneself can only happen through entry into the world of meanings, something that occurs within the scope of social relationships with mother, father, siblings, etc.; It is there and only there that the child can reach self-awareness.[v] For Hegel, according to Richard A. Lynch, there is no consciousness possible without language[vi] and therefore without language-mediated interactions. Consequently, the understanding of the image in the mirror as one's own image could only come later, or rather together, as an element of the child's socialization process. For Richard A. Lynch, “the mirror stage is important, but not as an initial cause of ego formation, but as an indication that ego formation has occurred successfully”

The fact is that, for Lacan, entry into language comes after the mirror stage. This is what he says: “The important point is that this form locates the instance of the self, from before its social determination, in a line of fiction, forever irreducible for the isolated individual – or rather, which will only join asymptotically to the becoming of the subject, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he has to resolve, as an “I”, his disagreement with his own reality”.

But what is the most important consequence of this founding premise that marks Lacan's psychoanalytic and philosophical discourse? If, for an author like Marx, the alienation of the human being stems from an objective social situation, crystallized in the course of history through reified forms of social relations, for the author who is critically addressed here, alienation is an inherent subjective condition to the human being as a social being in a transhistorical way. And this “identification through the other”, a mirror, is independent of the history of modes of production. Behold, due to the mirror stage, he becomes a prisoner of this specular figure, which also appears as the primary source of an ideal-ego, constitutive of the imaginary of each individual.

“The total form of the body through which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is only given to him as shape (…). So, this shape, whose pregnancy must be considered as linked to the species (…) symbolizes, through these two aspects of its emergence [that is, the inversion and freezing of the body in an image], the mental permanence of the “I”, at the same time that it prefigures its alienating destination.”

Lacan declares – it is emphasized here – the human as an inexorably alienated being. If in economic science the “subject” appears as self-centered and clairvoyant, in Lacan’s psychoanalysis the “subject” appears as “outside himself” and self-deceived about himself. In the first case, the subject is posited; in the second case, the subject is not posited, it appears only as a mirage, that is, it appears as a lack-of-being; in the third, which would be the case of Marx, the subject is presupposed and can, therefore, come to be – not individually, but collectively through the overcoming of capital and capitalism.

But this third position does not imply postulating a teleology of history according to which the future reserves for the social being the realization of a full subject in a society without contradictions, in which all possible alienation has been overcome. Furthermore, Jacques Lacan's non-dialectical position does imply a statement of this type – albeit with a different tenor. His conception contains a teleology of history in which, contrary to such futurist humanism unduly allocated to Marx, the impossibility of overcoming historically contingent limitations is postulated. Therefore, for him, alienation is fundamental and, therefore, independent of the temporality of history.

But would this theoretical proposal, as he himself questions, not be “exposed to the recrimination of projecting oneself into the unthinkable of an absolute subject”? Being rigorous here, wouldn't such criticism point to the theoretical creation of an absolute non-subject? In any case, to get around the judgment that it postulates a metaphysical “subject”, “an abstract universal subject”[vii], seeks to strengthen this construction with various empirical evidence, apparently not decisive as always seems to happen. Of course, it is still in the field of traditional theory as characterized by Max Horkheimer.[viii]

For this reason, in addition, he states that to arrive at the formulation of the proto-subject he only applied what he called the “symbolic reduction method”, that is, he constructed a subjective abstraction based on the factual complexity of psychological phenomena.

It is clear that, if this theoretical proposal is thus refuted, the conclusions it raises about the human being should also be questioned. It is necessary to remember here, in view of this need, the book fight for recognition by Axel Honneth. For therein lies another way of understanding the social genesis of the identity of the self. “In no other theory” – he says – has the idea that human subjects owe their identity to the experience of intersubjective recognition been developed in such a consequential way (…) as in the social psychology of George H. Mead.”[ix] As we know, Axel Honneth seeks to develop in this book precisely Hegel's theory of recognition.

Self-awareness in this theory is formed in the intersubjective relationship of a human being with other human beings, that is, it is dependent on the apprehension of meanings. Therefore, interaction itself poses the constant problem of controlling oneself in order to control the reaction of others. It is only possible to “acquire self-awareness” – says Axel Honneth explaining George H. Mead – when the infant “learns his own action from the other’s perspective”. The “I” is formed from a reflective “me”; it comes into the child through a non-self, through an other, his mother and his other relatives.

If the child's self-awareness occurs through education, first in the family and then mainly at school, under the determinations, albeit indirect, of the sociability of capital, the responsibility for the emergence in the child of a phantasmatic ideal-self, infantile narcissism, etc. . it must be sought not in a “mirror stage”, but in these socio-metabolic determinations – even if mediated by the family. Under the conditions of current society, the family is not for oneself as one might think, but is there for others, that is, to enable the reproduction of capital. And this needs to be taken into consideration when understanding the psyche of the social individual as he came to be in the modern era.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).


[I] The term “subject” appears eleven times in the text of The mirror stadium. As is known, the subject, however, does not coincide with the ego. Lacan, as we also know, will only later develop his notion of the subject, when he elaborates what he calls symbolic. Would there be, however, a subject without an ego?

[ii] As is known, the first models of mirrors began to appear around 5 years ago, in ancient Sumer, present-day Iraq. Produced in sand-polished bronze plates, the mirrors did not reflect very clear images due to the material used for their manufacture.

[iii] “Self-consciousness” is, as is well known, a Hegelian category. It is certain that Lacan was greatly influenced by the exposition of the chapter that presents this category in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Sandrine Aumercier – in Lacan, a hegelien? – informs the following: “Hegel's borrowings come more from Kojève than from Hegel. And it is very likely that Lacan did not read anything other than the Phenomenology of Spirit, perhaps even just the 'dialectic of master and slave'”.

[iv] See Jameson, Fredric – Imaginary and symbolic in Lacan. In: The Jameson reader. Ed. Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks. Blackwell, 2000, p. 89-93 (

[v] See Lynch, Richard A. – The alienating mirror: towards a Hegelian critique of Lacan on ego-formation. In: humanistic studies, vol. 31, 2008, p. 209-221.

[vi] More than that, for Hegel there is no consciousness without work and social conflict, since these two mediations plus the mediation of language are constitutive of the human. Peter Dews, in his critique of Lacan, mentions that he moves away from Hegel because, for the German philosopher, “language is the existence of self-consciousness for others… which is immediately present” in the psyche of speakers. See Dews, Peter – Logics of disintegration. Verso, 2007, p. 72.

[vii] See Sales, Léa S. – Position of the mirror stage in the Lacanian theory of the imaginary. Psychology Department Magazine, UFF, vol. 17 (1), Jan./Jun. 2005.

[viii] Horkheimer, Max- Traditional theory and critical theory. The Thinkers Collection. Cultural April, 1975.

[ix] Honneth, Axel – Struggle for recognition – The moral grammar of social conflicts. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2009 (

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