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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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French: signification
Jacques Lacan
Early Work

In Lacan's pre-1950s writings, the term "signification" is used in a general way to connote both meaningfulness and importance.[1]


In 1946, for example, Lacan criticizes organicist psychiatry for ignoring "the significance of madness."[2]

Later Work
Symbolic Order

In the period 1953-7 the term retains these vague associations with the realm of meaning and language, and is thus located in the symbolic order.[3]

Latest Work
Imaginary Order

It is from 1957 on that Lacan's use of the term takes on a direct reference to the Saussurean concept, and shifts from the symbolic to the imaginary order.

Ferdinand de Saussure
Relation between Signifier and Signified

Saussure reserves the term "signification" for the relation between the signifier and the signified; each sound-image is said to "signify" a concept.[4]

Signification is, for Saussure, an unbreakable bond; the signifier and the signified are inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper.

Jacques Lacan
Relation between Signifier and Signified
The Saussurean algorithm

Lacan argues that the relationship between signifier and signified is far more precarious; he sees the bar between them in the Saussurean algorithm as representing not a bond but a rupture, a "resistance" to signification.[5]

Primacy of the Signifier

Firstly, the signifier is logically prior to the signified, which is merely an effect of the play of signifiers.


Secondly, even when signifieds are produced, they constantly slip and slide underneath the signifier; the only things that detain this movement temporarily, pinning the signifier to the signified for a brief moment and creating the illusion of a stable meaning, are the points de capiton.

Metaphor and Metonymy

Signification is, in Lacan's work, not a stable bond between signifier and signified, but a process -- the process by which the play of signifiers produces the illusion of the signified via the two tropes of metonymy and metaphor.


Signification is metonymic because "signification always refers to another signification."[6]

In other words, meaning is not found in any one signifier, but in the play between signifiers along the signifying chain and is therefore unstable.

"It is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning insists, but none of tis elements consists in the signification of which it is at the moment capable."[7]

Signification is metaphoric because it involves the crossing of the bar, the "passage of the signifier into the signified."[8]

The fundamental metaphor on which all signification depends in the paternal metaphor, and all signification is therefore phallic.

Lacanian Algebra

Signification is designated by the symbol s in Lacanian algebra (as in the notion s(A) which labels one of the main nodes in the graph of desire).

The notation for the signified is also s, which suggests that for Lacan the term "signification" (the process by which the effect of meaning is produced) and the term "signified" (the effect of meaning itself) tend to overlap.

Signification and Meaning

In the late 1950s, Lacan establishes an opposition between signification and meaning (sense).

The variety of ways in which these terms have been translated into English provides difficulty for the English reader of Lacan.


Signification is imaginary and is the province of empty speech; meaning is symbolic and is the province of full speech.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

Psychoanalytic interpretations go against signification and bear on meaning and its correlate, non-meaning (non-sens).

Production of Jouissance

Although signification and meaning are opposed, they are both related to the production of jouissance.

Lacan indicates this by coining two neologisms: signifiance (from the words signification and jouissance) and jouis-sense (from jouissance and sense).

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 81
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 167, 153-4
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 121
  4. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p. 114
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 164
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 33
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.153
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.164