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Signifier

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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French: signifiant

Jacques Lacan

Ferdinand de Saussure

Lacan takes the term "signifier" from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure.

According to Saussure, the signifier is the phonological element of the sign; not the actual sound itself, but the mental image of such a sound.

In Saussure's terms, the signifier is the "acoustic image" which signifies a signified.[1]

Primacy of the Signifier

Whereas Saussure argues that the signifier and the signified are mutually interdependent, Lacan states that the signifier is primary and produces the signified.

The signifier is first of all a meaningless material element in a closed differential system; this "signifier without the signified" is called by Lacan the "pure signifier", though this is a question of logical rather than chronological precedence.

"Every real signifier is, as such, a signifier that signifies nothing. The more the signifier signifies nothing, the more indestructible it is."[2]
The Subject and the Unconscious

It is these meaningless indestructible signifiers which determine the subject; the effects of the signifier on the subject constitute the unconscious, and hence also constitute the whole of the field of psychoanalysis.

Basic Units of Language

Thus for Lacan language is not a system of signs -- as it was for Saussure -- but a system of signifiers.

Signifiers are the basic units of language, and they are "subjected to the double condition of being reducible to ultimate differential elements and of combining according to the laws of a closed order."[3]

Differential Elements

By the phrase "reducible to ultimate differential elements," Lacan follows Saussure in asserting the fundamentally differential character of the signifier.

Saussure states that in language there are no positive terms, only differences.[4]

Signifying Chains

By the phrase "combining according to the laws of a closed order," Lacan asserts that signifiers are combined in signifying chains according to the laws of metonymy.

Symbolic Order

The signifier is the constitutive unit of the symbolic order because it is integrally related with the concept of structure.

"The notion of structure and that of signifier appear inseparable."[5]

The field of the signifier is the field of the Other, which Lacan calls "the battery of signifiers."

That Which Represents a Subject for Another Signifier

Lacan defines a signifier as "that which represents a subject for another signifier," in opposition to the sign, which "represents something for someone."[6]

To be more precise, one signifier (called the master signifier, and written SS1.gif) represents the subject for all other signifiers (written SS2.gif).

However, no signifier can signify the subject.

Sigmund Freud

Although the term "signifier" is absent from Freud's work, Lacan's use of the term focuses attention on a recurrent theme in Freud's writings.

Freud's examples of psychoanalytic interpretations constantly focus on purely formal linguistic features.

Thus Lacan's insistence that the analyst attend to the signifiers in the analysand's speech is not really an innovation in technique but an attempt to theorize Freud's own method in more rigorous terms.

Words and Non-Linguistic Things

While it is true that when Lacan talks about signifiers he is often referring to what others would call simply "words," the two terms are not equivalent.

Not only can units of language smaller than words (morphemes and phonemes) or larger than words (phrases and sentences) also function as signifiers, but so also can non-linguistic things such as objects, relationships and symptomatic acts.[7]

Differential Nature of the Signifier

The single condition which characterizes something as a signifier, for Lacan, is that it is inscribed in a system in which it takes on value purely by virtue of its difference from the other elements in the system.

Unstable Meaning

It is this differential nature of the signifier which means that it can never have a univocal or fixed meaning;[8] on the contrary, its meaning varies according to the position which it occupies in the structure.

See Also

References

  1. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p. 66-7
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 185
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 152
  4. Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p. 120
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 184
  6. 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. 207
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 288
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 289