The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Imaginary order: Along with the Real and the Symbolic order, one of the three orders of subjectivity according to twentieth-century French psychoanalytic theorist and critic Jacques Lacan. The Imaginary order is most closely associated with the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). The human infant, who is wholly dependent on others for a prolonged period, enters the Imaginary order when it begins to experience an empowering unity of body parts and motor control. This change, in which the child anticipates mastery of its body, occurs between the ages of six and eighteen months, during what Lacan called the “mirror stage,” or “mirror phase,” of human development. At the onset of the mirror stage — that is, upon entering the Imaginary order — the child identifies with the image of wholeness (seeing its own image in the mirror, experiencing its mother as a whole body, and so on). This sense of oneness, and also of difference from others (especially the mother or primary caretaker), is established through an image or a vision of harmony that is both a mirroring and a “mirage of maturation” (a false sense of individuality and independence).
The Imaginary is a metaphor for unity, is related to the visual order, and is always part of human subjectivity. Because the subject is fundamentally separate from others and also internally divided (conscious / unconscious), the apparent coherence of the Imaginary, its fullness and grandiosity, is always false, a misrecognition that the ego (or “me”) tries to deny by imagining itself as coherent and empowered.
The Imaginary, which operates in conjunction with the Real and Symbolic, is not a stage of development equivalent to Freud’s preoedipal stage, nor is it prelinguistic. The concept of the Imaginary — like Lacan’s “schema” and terminology more generally — has proved useful to psychoanalytic and poststructuralist critics analyzing the unities and disunities within texts.