The Anorexic Passion for the Mirror

Massimo Recalcati

Translated by Jorge Jauregui

Izima Kaoru

The “Constituent” Character of the Image
The Lacanian theory of the mirror stage is shaped as a “structural point of contingency” in the constitution of the subject. The backbones of this theory is well known: the fragmented body is only reconstructed as a formal and imaginary unity by means of the function of the specular image of the I which, precisely, offers to the reality of the fragmented body a formal solution of an ideal kind. A critical point in this theory is that the constitution of the I is not achieved by way of a pure dialectical recognition of the other as position of the Same, since the I would be a mere emptiness and lack any proper existence without the function of exteriority of the specular image. In other words, there isn’t a previously constituted I which would then be followed by the cognitive-discriminatory task of self-recognition in the alterity of the reflected image in the mirror (in this instance the I would be a constituted image and the specular recognition the dialectical authentication of this primal configuration). As Lacan argues, “The total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted.”1 Hence the insistence on expressions such as “prey,” “capture,” “aspiration,” “alienation” to characterize the “constituent” effect of the image upon the being of the subject.

I stress this phase of the mirror stage since what the clinic of anorexia teaches concerns precisely this constituent factor of the specular image. We always find in the relation of the anorexic subject with the image of her body, the institution of this same image as a type of existence autonomous from the subject and therefore “constituent” in the strongest sense.

In anorexia, this “constituent” factor of the specular image seems to return in the real in the form of a certain independence of the image vis-à-vis the body of the subject. The narcissistic image does not form the body, it instead effects the appearance of what in the body cannot be reduced to an image, that is the objet a as the “being” of the subject. In this sense, what the anorexic subject craves to erase from herself—the drive dimension of the body—returns from the outside in the guise of an imperfection of the image that is clear and as such not correctable. In dis-perceptive phenomena, which characterize the relation of the anorexic subject with the image of her own body, what is at stake is not only a “cognitive impediment” related to a limited ability of the I to discriminate its own internal moods (interoceptive perception) due to an insufficient differentiation of the I from a particularly intrusive maternal “Other” who governs the child with its own neurosis and is ineffective in helping him to perceive its own needs.2 Above all there is the impossibility of the subject to symbolize the real dimension of the drive body when confronted with the absence of an adequate identifying support (the ideal I) that guides him in the task.

The disorders of internal (hunger, satiety, weariness,
coldness…) and external perceptions of the self (the image of one’s own body) typical of the anorexic subject are not then related to a mere cognitive impediment. They refer instead to the hindrance experienced by a subject—as in the case of the anorexic adolescent with a weak symbolic identification—to subjectivize the real of sexuality.

This return of what is not symbolized by the subject—the body as sexually real, as the field of jouissance—may assume different forms, ranging from the hallucinatory return of the real in jouissance, which pierces the image’s screen and triggers a psychotic break in the subject, to more subtle perceptive disorders that bespeak of less determined structurally imaginary alterations.

For Julia anorexia functioned as a “dike” that protected her from a threat she felt “inside herself.” Being thin was her way to avoid becoming a “prisoner” of her own body, to not feel herself threatened by her body, “to not grow up and thus continue to live as a sinless girl.” The psychotic break takes place at age sixteen after a party, where a boy wearing a shirt emblazed with eagles woos her. The next day, Julia becomes prey to hallucinations: dark eagles invade the house and pierce her face until she bleeds. She hides in the bathroom and there she is held captive by the fear that the eagles will be reflected in the mirror instead of her image. To avoid seeing the eagles, she covers the mirror with a towel. Anorexia proper followed this episode as an attempt to heal the psychotic break. The hallucination of the eagles recurred each time Julia looked at herself in the mirror and found her body to be not sufficiently thin or, what amounts to the same thing, when she perceived the sexual forms of her body. Raised in a profoundly religious family, almost fundamentalist, Julia experienced the pubescent alterations of her body as a lethal threat. “Life is a long atonement” her father contended, a severe man follower of Schreber, who used to oblige the little girl into kissing the blood-stained feet of the crucified Christ. Anorexia proper is a way of her “being as thin as a nail,” of immolating herself as object of jouissance in order to accomplish her father’s super-ego insanity: to become a sinless girl, crucified. When she meets the boy at the party the equation of the sinless girl is broken: Julia cannot symbolize her own body as sexuated; except through the hallucination of the dark eagles in which she finds the trace of the jouissance of the Other in the shape of a threatening animal.

In Lucy, on the other hand, the perception of the image of her body is abnormal: she is almost flesh and bones, yet she sees fat covering and swelling her thighs. This perception has for her, as a hysteric, the status of irrefutable evidence.

Re-Thinking the Mirror Stage

As a structural point of contingency in the constitution of the subject, the mirror stage, in its classic formulation, leaves out sexual difference. What we suggest here is the possibility of re-thinking the specificity of the mirror stage vis-à-vis sexual difference and particularly in the field of feminine sexuation. This possibility comes to us by way of the clinic of anorexia, which is both a clinic of the feminine and a clinic where the passion for one’s own specular image is absolutely central.3 Yet, wouldn’t it be imperative to re-think the mirror stage beyond its inaugural moment, even in relation to adolescence, which is a fundamental moment for the adjustment of the subject’s relation with the narcissistic image?

After the initial “honeymoon,” the passion for the mirror is soothed in the child until to the point where it turns into the opposite or is extinguished in a sort of indifference or even rejection toward the mirror-object as the years go by. If at the moment of jubilant jouissance the mirror returns to the child his ideal image, thus offering a body still at the mercy of primordial insufficiency (“primordial discordance” writes Lacan when translating Freud’s Hilflosigkeit) a sufficient narcissistic dressing, at the same time it announces to the subject the hopeless alienated character of its constitution, that is its “mortal signification.”4 These are, as we know, the two sides of the drama being played out at the mirror: on one hand the positive realization, although it comes fatally too soon, of a narcissistic identification with the I, and on the other the intrusion of an alterity which, in lieu of suturing the split of the subject, shows its incurable rule. These two sides we find in Freud’s The Uncanny in the ambivalence of the notion of “double”: on one hand it is the presentiment of a kind of mirage of permanence in the I (“an assurance of immortality”), on the other it is the manifestation of the subject’s submission to death, the surrender evoked by the divided, alienated rule of the subject itself, which detects in the double “the uncanny harbinger of death.”5

The anorexic anxiety in front of the mirror reflects this ambiguity of the double: first, the apparition of the image of the thin body captures the subject’s narcissistic jouissance in the attainment of an ideal image that seems to escape the corruption of time (and of castration). But then this image, when it fails to achieve fulfillment (the image always suffers, in the perceptive delirium of the anorexic, from an excess of flesh) ends up evoking the specter of death, of the contingency and castration—of the real as that which sunders the power of narcissism—from which the subject is running away.

Adolescence is characterized by the return a forthright ambivalent concern in one’s own specular image. We are dealing here with a kind of exit from the dormancy of the human passion for the mirror. This departure from the dormancy of the subject’s rapport with the specular image must be related to the pubescent transformations of the body that demand a new assessment of the subject’s narcissistic image. In adolescence, the relation with the mirror may thus attain the fundamental value of a confirmation of one’s own narcissistic constitution vis-à-vis the irruption of the real in puberty. Likewise, this evidence may well reveal that part of the pubescent real—the reality of drive—which cannot be specularized. In this sense, the encounter with the limit of narcissistic specularization may transform the mirror from an object that offers an identifying support to an object that generates anxiety.6 It is not a coincidence that dismorphophobic disorders are common in adolescence; they bespeak of the subject’s difficulty in integrating the body as narcissistic image, i(a), with the body as being of the drive, as the locus of the sentiment of life (objet a).7 Thus, a young analysand of mine, after a party with friends where some minor transgressions were committed, looked himself at the mirror and couldn’t recognize his “true face.” In effect, the image of the “good young man” he maintained with respect to the demand of the paternal and maternal Other seemed to get lost in the mirror; that image was substituted by one unrecognizable, in the literal sense, since he could not recognize the features of his own face.

The current split between puberty and adolescence—the former occurring earlier in time and the latter being lengthened, “prolonged adolescence” (arising from the problematization of the thesis of “adolescence as symptom of puberty”)8—is one aspect of the difficulty of integrating the two bodies, the narcissistic body and the body of drive, that is peculiar to the social-historical decline of the contemporary Other, that is an Other that no longer offers the adequate identifying means to symbolize the event of puberty. Another indicator of this difficulty is the current proliferation of “cutters,” real cuts made in adolescent flesh (tattooing, piercing, mutilations), seem to be an effect of the absence of a symbolic cut socially recognizable and collectively ritualized.

In a more radical way, certain phenomena ranging from dismorphophobia to hallucinatory perceptions are regularly found in the clinic of anorexia.

A Clinic of the Mirror

In the clinic of hysteria as Lacan formulates it in “La psychanalyse et son enseignement” we find a theory of the mirror stage supplemented with sexual difference. There, the clinic of hysteria is formulated around a kind of defective organization of the mirror stage: the hysteric suffers from an incomplete specularization of her own image, which maintains in a state of uncertainty her query as to whether she is man or woman. Accordingly, she seeks another woman as the narcissistic companion necessary to carry out this process; in other words, the “other woman” occupies the position of a real other who must provide the subject with a specular supplement capable of serving as culmination of her own image’s narcissistic specularization. The other woman, the other real, inhabits the site of the idealized specular image. Through her, the subject contemplates, as an enraptured Dora delighted in front of the dreaming image of the Virgin Mary,9 the mystery of the feminine, “since it is there where she calls for what can give her body, and this because she knew not how to take body here.”10

This clinical use of the mirror stage signals woman’s particular sensitivity toward the specularization of the image of her body. If, effectively, in man the presence of the phallus seems to provide him with a visible support, a representation that protects him from the encounter with emptiness, with absence, with the lack of real castration and accordingly his rapport with the specular image becomes less vital, in woman, on the contrary, the specular image stood up in a background of absence, concealing an emptiness11 and thus becoming an over-invested narcissistic locus. The clinic of the ravishment (ravissement), for instance, is a clinic of the feminine body (not completely inscribed in the logic of phallic jouissance) expressing the effects (of disorientation, of ecstasy, of falling, of emptying, of absence) that may induce in the subject’s rapport with her own body the irruption of that fundamental emptiness covered over by the feminine masquerade. When, in fact, the subject is unmasked, when the mask is dropped, we find on the side of man the paradigmatic effect of neurotic horror vis-à-vis the vagina as the incarnation of this deep absence of the woman’s body and as presence of the limitless and distressful character of its jouissance. Whereas, on the side of woman, we find a stratifying of personal experiences that oscillate trans-clinically, from the emergence of a non-specular nakedness as nauseating pure flesh (hysteria) to the phallic devaluation of her own body (depression), from the putrefaction of the body to the appearance of death itself, from dismorphophobic dis-personalization to the loss tout court (static, terrifying and paralyzing or even absolutely indifferent) of the connection with her own body.

For woman, the specular image functions as a primal and fundamental mask that covers her non-phallic lack. Hence the different libidinal intensity of the specular investment and, in general, the value that in woman the aesthetic image of the body acquires vis-à-vis man.

In effect, the theory of the mirror stage as “structural point of contingency” should not hamper either grasping the successive scansions that may characterize the encounter with the specular image (a theory of the mirror stage addressing the adolescent rite of passage remains to be elaborated) nor the thinking of its very different declensions according to the subject’s sexuation.

Hysteria, as conceived as the effect of a difficulty for the feminine subject to “take body” at the moment of the constitution of the narcissistic image, makes evident the series of disturbances that this difficulty entails (we may include among them “the rejection of the body” as an essential trait of hysteria proper). In “the rejection of the body” not only is expressed the rejection of the imaginary supremacy of the phallus—the hysterical rejection of the Law of the Master—but also woman’s more structural difficulty in gaining access to the assumption of the feminine semblance which, as we know, conceals the void of the absence of the phallus. The contemporary aggravation of masochist behaviors that transform the feminine body in a target of continuous self-aggressions (small injuries, piercing, cuts, burns, etc.) indicates a possible decline in the hysterical rejection of the body which, in the affront to the aesthetic form of the body that it puts in evidence, shows the existence of an added difficulty in the feminine inflection of the mirror stage: How to specularize what doesn’t exist? How to specularize a symbolic absence? Which is the image needed to re-cover the non-existence of Woman?12

This difficulty produces woman’s distinct passion for the mirror—a passion that attracted Freud’s attention in On Narcissism when he indicates that woman’s difficulty to accede to anaclitic love (“attachment object-choice”) is due to an excessive fondness for her own image (“an intensification of the original narcissism is unfavorable to the development of a true object-choice”).13 In fact, in the contemplation of her own image in the mirror woman seems to look for the answer to the feminine enigma (the mirror is an object that preserves the mystery of a being Other vis-à-vis oneself), since from the symbolic perspective what is found there is only the absence of a signifier that, beyond the phallic meter, would be capable to name the Other sex.14


1 Lacan, J., “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I,” in Écrits: A Selection, New York: Norton, 1977.

2 Bruch, H., Patologia dei disturbi alimentari. Obesità, anoressia mentale e personalità, Milano: Fretinelli, 1978.

3 Anorexia stays a feminine pathology in a very high percentage. Epidemiological data suggest 95 / 98% of the cases. See A. Speranza, “Aspetti diagnosticie caratteristiche psicopatologiche nei disturbi alimentari: un contributo “di ricerca,” in I corpo ostaggio. Teoria e clinica dell’anoressia-bulimia, M. Recalcati ed., Roma: Borla, 1998.

4 Lacan, J., “Variantes de la cure type,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.

5 Freud, S., The Uncanny, S.E. XVII, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986. On the rapport between specularization-anxiety-perturbation see G. Berro, Freud, Heidegger, lo spaesamento, Milano: Bompiani, 1998.

6 Anxiety as the subject’s answer to what cannot be specularized or as limit of specularization is found in Lacan’s Le Séminaire, Livre X, L’angoissse, 1962-1963, Paris: Seuil, 2004.

7 Miller, J.-A., Les us du laps, Paris, 06/14/2000.

8 Stevens, A., “L’adolescence comme symptôme de la puberté,” in Feuillets du Courtil 15. On the differentiation between puberty and adolescence in contemporaneity see S. Vegetti Finzi, L’età incerta. I nuovi adolescenti, Milano: Mondadori, 2001.

9 Lacan, J., Le Séminaire, Livre XVII, L’envers de la psychanalyse, 1969-1970, Paris: Seuil, 1991.

10 Lacan, J., “La psychanalyse et son enseignement,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.

11 “What then is vacuity?”, “What means being under?” asks Lacan when he analyzes the rapport between woman and the mask; he then shows how the image of woman, her dress, takes the place of the emptiness that defines her own body. See his “Hommage fait à Marguerite Duras du ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” Ornicar? 34, Paris: Navarin, 1985. English translation by Peter Connor, “Homage to Marguerite Duras, on Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” Marguerite Duras, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987.

12 In Lacan the non-existence of Woman (“Woman doesn’t exist”) appears as a consequence inferred from the Freudian problem on the existence of only one function, the Phallic one. See his The Seminar, Book XX: On feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore, 1972-1973, New York: Norton, 1998.

13 Freud, S., On Narcissism: An Introduction, S.E. XIV, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986.

14 This rationale appears as one of the arguments that explain anorexia’s selective feminine declination. Actually, Nieves Soria advances the thesis that anorexia itself, in its present epidemic dissemination, is fashioned as an answer to the femininity enigma: “We may think anorexia as a modality by which the hysteric attempts to name herself as woman through the image of her body, exhausting the image for an answer of femininity.” N. Soria, Psicoanálisis de la anorexia y la bulimia, Buenos Aires: Tres Haches, 2000.






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