Ferdinand de Saussure
The sign is constituted by two elements:
- the signified, a conceptual element (or concept), and
- the signifier, a phonological element (or sound-image).
The two elements are linked by an arbitrary but unbreakable bond.
Saussure represented the sign by means of a diagram. In this diagram, the line between the signified and the signifier represents union, the reciprocal implication of the two elements. (Saussure put the signifier and the signified in an ellipse which indicates structural unity of the sign.)
Lacan takes up the Saussurean concept of the sign in his "linguistic turn" in psychoanalysis during the 1950s, but subjects it to several modifications. During the 1950s Lacan began to make us of Saussure's concepts but adapted them in important ways.
Relation between Signifier and Signified
Firstly, whereas Saussure posited the reciprocal implication between signifier and signified (they are as mutually interdependent as two sides of a sheet of paper), Lacan argues that the relation between signifier and signified is extremely unstable.
Primacy of the Signifier
Secondly, Lacan asserts the existence of an order of "pure signifiers," where signifiers exist prior to signifieds; this order of purely logical structure is the unconscious. This amounts to a destruction of Saussure's concept of the sign; for Lacan, a language is not composed of signs but of signifiers.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p.114
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.149
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 163