Testing Anthropocentrism: Lacan and the Animal Imago


  • Jacqueline Dalziell Macquarie University




Anthropocentrism, psychoanalysis, The Mirror Stage, animal, recognition, human exceptionalism, Jacques Lacan, imago, nonhuman, Wolfgang Köhler


In an effort to complicate the human subject, this article considers the critical insights of psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan, focusing in particular on his essay, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949). ‘The Mirror Stage’ explains how we break from nature, differentiate ourselves from the animal and graduate from primordial subsistence as psychically folded into the first lightning strike of recognition that arrives with/as self-reflection. Curiously however, in sustaining his argument about the human specificity of the mirror stage phenomenon, Lacan relies upon ethological research on nonhuman self-recognition. This reliance of his argument on the figure of the animal has largely been interpreted in two ways: as an inconsequential detail, undeserving of theoretical exploration, or, as confirmation of Lacan’s self-evident anthropocentrism. For instance, Buse (2017) and Ziser (2007) have noted the significant discrepancies within ‘The Mirror Stage’ between Lacan’s understanding of primate self-recognition, and that of his main source, Wolfgang Köhler. Although, both thinkers hold the position that Lacan’s treatment of the animal in ‘The Mirror Stage’ provides sufficient textual evidence for a reading that endorses human exceptionalism. Departing from this prior research, I focus on these same textual irregularities within ‘The Mirror Stage,’ yet see something quite different taking place in these moments. In order to preserve the complexity of Lacanian material, in a detailed examination utilising close reading, I pick apart long passages of both Lacan and his sources and conclude that Lacan’s position on the animal is both ambivalent and ambiguous in character. This culminates in a lack of clarity regarding how to understand Lacan’s position on both the animal, and correlatively the human. In turn, acknowledging this uncertainty provides a novel way to approach this seminal text, and a justification to revise accusations of anthropocentrism, alongside dominant interpretations more broadly.

Author Biography

Jacqueline Dalziell, Macquarie University

Postdoctoral Fellow in Empirical Bioethics

Macquarie University