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Language

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French: langue, langage
Translation

It is important to note that the English word "language" corresponds to two French words: langue and langage.

These two words have quite different meanings in Lacan's work: langue usually refers to a specific language, such as French or English, whereas langage refers to the system of language in general, abstracting from all particular languages.

Jacques Lacan

It is fundamentally the general structure of language (langage), rather than the differences between particular languages ('langues) that interests Lacan.

When reading Lacan in English it is therefore essential to be aware of which term is used in the original French; most of the time the French term will be langage.

Psychoanalytic Experience

Between 1936 and 1949 references to language are sparse, but they are significant; already in 1936, for example, Lacan emphasizes that language is constitutive of the psychoanalytic experience,[1] and in 1946 he argues that it is impossible to understand madness without addressing the problem of language.[2]

Lacan's comments on language at this time do not contain any references to a specific linguistic theory, and instead are dominated by philosophical allusions, mainly in terms derived from Hegel.

Thus language is seen primarily as a mediating element which permits the subject to attain recognition from the other.[3]

Above and beyond its use for conveying information, language is first and foremost an appeal to an interlocutor; in Jakobson's terms, Lacan stresses the connative function above the referential.

Thus he insists that langage is not a nomenclature.[4]

Anthropology and Phenomenology

From 1950 to 1954 language begins to occupy the central position that it will hold in Lacan's work thereafter.

In this period, Lacan's discussion of language is dominated by references to Heideggerian phenomenology and, more importantly, to the anthropology of language (Maus, Malinowski, and Lévi-Strauss.

Language is thus seen as structuring the social laws of exchange, as a symbolic pact, etc.

There are also occasional references to rhetoric, but these are not elaborated.[5]

There are a few allusions to Saussure,[6] but in his famous "Rome Discourse" Lacan establishes an opposition between parole and langage (and not, as Saussure does, between parole and langue.[7]

"The Unconscious is Structured like a Language"

Between 1955 and 1970 language takes center stage and Lacan develops his classic thesis that "the unconscious is structured like a language."[8]

It is in this period that the names Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson come to the fore in Lacan's work.

Structural Linguistics

Lacan takes up Saussure's theory that language is a structure composed of differential elements, but whereas Saussure had stated this of langue, Lacan states it of langage.

Langage becomes, for Lacan, the single paradigm of all structures.

Lacan then proceeds to criticize the Saussurean concept of language, arguing that the basic unit of language is not the sign but the signifier.

Lacan then argues that the unconscious is, like language, a structure of signifiers, which also allows Lacan to formulate the category of the symbolic with greater precision.

In 1969 Lacan develops a concept of discourse as a kind of social bond.

Psychotic Language

From 1971 on, the shift from linguistics to mathematics as the paradigm of scientificity is accompanied by a tendency to emphasize the poetry and ambiguity of language, as is evident in Lacan's increasing interest in the "psychotic language" of James Joyce.[9]

Lacan's own style reflects this change as it becomes ever more densely populated with puns and neologisms.

Lalangue

Lacan coins the term lalangue (from the definite article la and the noun langue) to refer to these non-communicative aspects of language which, by playing on ambiguity and homophony, give rise to a kind of jouissance.[10]

The term "language" now becomes opposed to lalangue.

Lalangue is like the primary chaotic substrate of polysemy out of which language is constructed, almost as if language is some ordered superstructure sitting on top of this substrate:

"Language is without doubt made of lalangue. It is an elucubration of knowledge (savoir) about lalangue.[11]
Lacanian Psychoanalysis
Language in Analytic Treatment

It is the emphasis placed by Lacanian psychoanalysis that is usually regarded as its most distinctive feature.

Lacan criticizes the way that other forms of psychoanalysis, such as Kleinian psychoanalysis and object-relations theory, tend to play down the importance of language and emphasize the "non-verbal communication" of the analysand (his "body language," etc.) at the expense of the analysand's speech).

This is a fundamental error, according to Lacan, for three main reasons.

1. Firstly, all human communication is inscribed in a linguistic structure; even "body language," is, as the term implies, fundamentally a form of language, with the same structural features.
2. Secondly, the whole aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to articulate the truth of one's desire in speech rather than in any other medium; the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis is based on the principle that speech is the only way to this truth.
3. And thirdly, speech is the only tool which the analyst has; therefore, any analyst who does not understand the way speech and language work does not understand psychoanalysis itself.[12]

One consequence of Lacan's emphasis on language is his recommendation that the analyst must attend to the formal features of the analysand's speech (the signifiers), and not be sidetracked into an empathic attitude baseed on an imaginary understanding of the content (the signified).

Symbolic and Imaginary Dimensions

One common misconception of Lacan is that language is synonymous with the symbolic order.

This is, however, not correct; Lacan argues that language has both a symbolic and an imaginary dimension.

"There is something in the symbolic function of human discourse that cannot be eliminated, and that is the role played in it by the imaginary."[13]

The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier and true speech.

The imaginary dimension of language is that of the signified, signification, and empty speech.

Schema L represents these two dimensions of language by means of two axes which intersect.

The axis A-S is language in its symbolic dimension], the discourse of the Other, the unconscious.

The imaginary axis a'-a is language in its imaginary dimension, the wall of language which interrupts, distorts and inverts the discourse of the Other.

In Lacan's words, "language is as much there to be found in the Other as to drastically prevent us from understanding him.[14]

Languages and Codes

Lacan distinguishes between languages and codes; unlike codes, in language there is no stable one-to-one correspondence between sign and referent, nor between signified and signifier.

It is this property of language which gives rise to the inherent ambiguity of all discourse, which can only be interpreted by playing on the homophony and other forms of equivocation (l'équivoque).

See Also

References

  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.82
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 166
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 9
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 166
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 169
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 248
  7. Lacan, Jacques.. "Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse." 1953a. In Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 237-322. ("The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis.") In Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977.. p. 30-113
  8. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 20
  9. Lacan, Jacques.. "Joyce le symptôme." 1975a. In Jacques Aubert (ed.), Joyce avec Lacan. Paris: Navarin, 1987.
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 126
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 127
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 40
  13. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.306
  14. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 244