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Signifying chain

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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French: chaîne signifiante, chaîne du signifiant

Jacques Lacan

Symbolic Chain

The term "chain" is used increasingly by Lacan from the mid-1950s on, always in references to the symbolic order. At first, in 1956, he speaks not of the signifying chain but of the symbolic chain, by which he denotes a line of descendence into which each subject is inscribed even before his birth and after his death, and which influences his destiny unconsciously.[1] In the same year he speaks of "the chain of discourse."[2]

Chain of Signifiers

It is in 1957 that Lacan introduces the term "signifying chain" to refer to a series of signifiers which are linked together.

Metonymy and Desire

A signifying chain can never be complete, since it is always possible to add another signifier to it, ad infinitum, in a way which expresses the eternal nature of desire; for this reason, desire is metonymic.

Metonymy and Signification

The chain is also metonymic in the production of meaning; signification is not present at any one point in the chain, but rather meaning "insists" in the movement from one signifier to another.[3]

Linearity Versus Circularity

Lacan speaks of the signifying chain in linear metaphors and circular metaphors.

Linearity

"The linearity that Saussure holds to be constitutive of the chain of discourse applies to the chain of discourse only in the direction in which it is oriented in time."[4]

Metonymic Axis of Language

On the one hand, the idea of linearity suggests that the signifying chain is the stream of speech, in which signifiers are combined in accordance with the laws of grammar -- which Saussure calls "syntagmatic" relationships, and Lacan, following Jakobson, locates on the metonymic axis of language.

Circularity

The signifying chain is compared to "rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings."[5]

Metaphoric Axis of Language

On the other hand, the idea of circularity suggests that the signifying chain is a series of signifiers linked by free associations, just one path through the network of signifiers which constitutes the symbolic world of the subject -- which Saussure calls "associative" relationships, and Lacan, following Jakobson, locates on the metaphoric axis of language.

Diachronic and Synchronic Dimensions

In truth, the signifying chain is both of these things. In its diachronic dimension it is linear, syntagmatic, metonymic; in its synchronic dimension it is circular, associative, metaphoric. The two cross over:

"There is in effect no signifying chain [diachronic chain] that does not have, as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units, a whole articulation of relevant contexts [synchronic units] suspended 'vertically', as it were, from that point."[6]

Lacan thus combines in one concept the two types of relationship ("syntagmatic" and "associative") which Saussure argued existed between signs, though for Lacan, the relationship is between signifiers, not signs.

See Also

References

  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 468
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 261
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 153
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 154
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 153
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 154