If 'The Mirror Stage' represented Lacan's first innovation within the field of psychoanalysis, it was one that remained recognizably within the limits of accepted theory and practice. It was almost 15 years before a distinctively Lacanian reading of psychoanalysis began to emerge when, in 1951, Lacan made his call for a 'return to Freud'. Two years later, at the Rome Congress of Romance Language Psychoanalysts, Lacan delivered a paper entitled 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis' (1977b ), subsequently known as 'The Rome Discourse'. This paper set out his major concerns for the following decade, the distinction between speech and language, an understanding of the subject as distinct from the I and, above all, the elaboration of the central concepts of the signifier and the symbolic order. Also in 1953, Lacan and a group of colleagues left the Paris PsychoAnalytical Society to form the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP). The Rome Discourse came to be seen as the founding document of the new school and of a new direction in psychoanalysis.
This chapter focuses upon Lacan's work in the 1950s, when he placed his greatest emphasis on the role of language in psychoanalysis and formulated his most important thesis: that the unconscious is structured like a language. This was an extraordinarily innovative period for Lacan and he introduced many of the concepts that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career. In order to help you understand these concepts and Lacan's transformation of them, this chapter will outline the major influences from this period and show how Lacan drew on a field of study known as Structuralism and on linguistic theory. In so doing the chapter provides the framework for a more detailed discussion of the unconscious and the subject in the following chapter. I will briefly introduce Structuralism before outlining Claude Lévi-Strauss's (1908-) elementary structure of kinship, as this provides the basis for understanding Lacan's conception of the symbolic order and the formation of the unconscious. Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology was facilitated by the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and it was through Lévi-Strauss that Lacan began to read linguistics. In the process he made radical and farreaching changes to Saussure's concept of the linguistic sign, completely reversing any conventional understanding of the relationship between the speaking subject and language. Finally, we will look at the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson's (1896-1982) work on metaphor and metonymy, as this was crucially important for Lacan's conceptualization of desire. Exploring these influences will help you understand Lacan's conception of the subject as constituted in and through language. The chapter concludes with Lacan's analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Purloined Letter as this clearly illustrates what he calls the subject as the subject of the signifier.
Structuralism was first and foremost a method of analysis that dominated French intellectual life in the 1950s and 1960s. It was not a movement as such but rather a label for a mode of thinking and analysis common to a wide range of disciplines, from mathematics to literary criticism. Structuralism was seen to be applicable to all human social phenomena. The disparate collection of thinkers who are now placed, frequently incorrectly, under the rubric Structuralism do not form a coherent group. These often include the psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980); the linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982); the literary theorists Roland Barthes (1915-80), Tzvetan Todorov (1939-) and Gérard Genette (1930-); the social theorist Michel Foucault (1926-84); the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-90); and, of course, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The sources of Structuralism were very eclectic and its influence wide ranging, but it has now inextricably come to be associated with the work of a single figure, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Lévi-Strauss's structural methodology derives from Saussure's foundational distinction between langue and parole (see p. 37) or the distinction between a given system, such as language, and the individual expression or manifestation of that system, as in an individual's speech. Structuralists were not concerned with the meaning of individual signs but with describing the organization of the overall sign-system or 'structure'. Linguistics provided the model for this form of analysis, although the main objects of study for Structuralism were very often non-verbal sign systems; for example, Roland Barthes' study of fashion (1985 ), or Lévi-Strauss's own analysis of kinship systems (1969 ) and food preparation (1966). The basic premise of Structuralism was that all social activity constitutes a language insofar as it involves sign systems with their own intrinsic rules and grammar. Thus, we understand individual acts not in their own right but against a background of social relations from which they derive their meaning.
In his seminal study 'The Elementary Structures of Kinship' (1969 ) Lévi-Strauss analysed the marriage and kinship systems of so-called 'primitive' societies. He postulated that what one found in the marriage relations of these societies was nothing less than the basic underlying structure of society itself; in other words, the elementary structure from which all subsequent social relations derive. What is important about Lévi-Strauss's study is not so much its accuracy, as his notion of elementary structures has been widely disputed and disproved, but rather the nature of the study itself. Lévi-Strauss argued that what was significant in this process was not so much the exchange of real people - of actual women - but the way in which women were transformed into signs and operated within a system of symbolic exchange. The exchange of women operated like a language - a formal system with its own rules and regulations which could not be infringed but at the same time remained unconscious to the individual system users. In other words, there is an unconscious structure that determines people's social position and regulates their relationships without their being aware of it. Lacan drew two important lessons from Lévi-Strauss:
1 That there is an elementary structure - a single 'unconscious' structure - which can be seen to underlie all other kinship and social relations.
2 That what takes place within kinship systems is not the giving and taking of real persons in marriage but a process of symbolic exchange.
From the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, therefore, Lacan derives the idea that what characterises the human world is the symbolic function - a function that intervenes in all aspects of our lives. Furthermore, in an introduction to the work of another anthropologist, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), Lévi-Strauss suggested that 'what is called the unconscious is merely an empty space in which the symbolic function achieves autonomy', that is to say, a space where 'symbols are more real than what they symbolize' (Roudinesco 1999:211). In the 1950s Lacan wanted to re-establish psychoanalysis as a science and, in order to do so, he first had to identify what was specific about its object of study, the unconscious, and how one could go about studying it. Lévi-Strauss's insight into the autonomy of the symbolic function was to provide Lacan with a crucial step in his attempt to establish Freudian psychoanalysis on a more philosophically and scientifically firm footing. But to make this move fully Lacan needed to make one more theoretical detour - a detour through linguistics.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale (published posthumously in 1916, see 1983) has been described as nothing less than a 'Copernican revolution' in the human and social sciences, in the sense that, 'instead of men's words being seen as peripheral to men's understanding of reality, men's understanding of reality came to be seen as revolving about their social use of verbal signs' (Saussure 1983 : ix). Prior to Saussure the study of language was primarily concerned with philology and etymology, that is to say, tracing the history and derivation of words. Traditionally linguistics saw language as composed of separate discrete units or words, each word having its own 'meaning' adhering to it. Saussure argued that if linguistics was to be considered scientific it could not be based upon historical principles, or what is one first identifies one's object of study. In terms of linguistics this required the linguist to view language not historically but synchronically as a system that is complete at any given moment in time. In this system all the elements and rules are, in theory at least, simultaneously available to the language user. When we use language we do so against a background of vocabulary, syntax, grammar and conventions; we are not conscious of all those elements when we speak or write but they are there and they determine what we can and cannot say. If we transgress the rules, our speech becomes meaningless. Saussure distinguished three aspects of language:
- Language itself as a universal human phenomenon of communication.
- Langue as a particular language or language system (English, for example).
- Parole as language in use, specific speech acts or utterances.
His work was concerned with the second of these categories, that is, language as a system and how meaning is created by that system. What is important here, and particularly in relation to Lacan, is that individual speaking subjects remain unconscious of the system itself. Saussure's most original contribution to the study of language, then, was the conception of language as a total system - a system that governs what people can say, while they themselves remain unconscious of its rules.
According to Saussure, language is not simply a list of terms that correspond to a set of things, or phenomena, in the world. Language is rather a system of signs. A 'correspondence' theory of language sees it as a system of signs that refers directly to objects in the world. We can diagrammatically represent this through the relationship between a word - its concept or idea - and the thing to which it refers, the referent:
Saussure argued, however, that words cannot refer to specific phenomena in the material world, as this assumes that there is a natural, organic, relation between words and what they represent. As he pointed out, if I speak the word 'tree' or 'chair' we will all immediately conjure up conceptions of trees or chairs, but these images do not actually refer to a specific tree or chair in the material world. Instead, we are all thinking about different trees and chairs. What the word 'tree' refers to is not a 'thing' - a real tree - but a concept of a tree. We must, therefore, bracket the term 'referent' and put the notion that language refers to substantive phenomena in the real world to one side.
The word does not refer to a specific referent at all, but only to a concept, and the proper concern of linguistics - the linguistic sign - consists of a word and its concept. Saussure's linguistic sign consists of two elements: the sound pattern or written word, which is called the signifier, and the concept, which is known as the signified.
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and is determined by social convention. But if language does not correspond to objects in the world then how does it become meaningful? According to Saussure, meaning does not reside in individual signs but in the relationship between signs in the language system itself. Language creates a differential system whereby any given sign acquires its meaning by virtue of its difference from other signs. When we speak we choose to use certain words and exclude others. For example, I may say 'chair' rather than 'throne' or 'armchair'. Each word designates a piece of furniture I can sit upon but they all have very different meanings. This element of selection is called the paradigmatic axis of language. But I cannot select and use any word I want. I must combine them in a syntactically correct way for them to make sense and this is referred to as the syntagmatic axis. The meaning of each word, each sign, also depends on the words that come before and after it in a sentence. Let us take, for example, the sentence:
We will leave Paris tomorrow.
Each term in this sentence acquires its meaning on the one hand through its differentiation from other possible terms we could use in the same context and on the other through its place in the overall sentence structure. Thus, 'We' could be substituted by 'I', 'you', 'he' or 'she', or 'tomorrow' could be substituted by 'today'. The sentence will still make sense if we substitute these terms but it will have a very different meaning. These alternatives are absent from the immediate situation of language use but are present as a background against which we understand specific terms. Second, the meaning of a sentence arises from a specific combination of terms rather than its individual elements in isolation. Thus, if we rearranged this sentence we can still understand the individual terms but it does not make sense overall:
Paris leave will tomorrow we.
This is the function of syntax and grammar or the syntagmatic axis. Language works by combining these two functions; the meaning of what a person says depends not only upon the words they use and those they exclude but also upon the place of those words within an overall structure.
Language exists as a complex network of signs. A given sign is defined not by virtue of an intrinsic value or meaning, but rather through its relative position within the overall system of signification and through its difference from all the other signs in that system. A sign does not refer us to a specific object in the real material world, but rather to another sign which in turn refers us to another sign and so on.
A good example of this is the use of a dictionary. If we want to find out what a word means, what do we do? We look it up in a dictionary. But a dictionary is simply a compendium of signs; therefore, the meaning of a specific sign is simply another sign and if we were to look up the meaning of this second sign we would find another and another and so on and so forth. This process will never come to a stop at an actual referent in the real world, but results in an endless process of 'signification'.There are three essential lessons to be drawn from Saussure's theory of language:
- Language precedes consciousness; as speaking subjects we are born into language.
- Language does not reflect reality but rather one produces one's experience within the constraints of the given language system and that language system, to some extent, conditions the nature of one's experience.
- Language is not an absolute and fixed system within which a singular meaning can be located, but it is rather a set of differential relations.
Saussure's conception of language as a total system provided the model for Lévi-Strauss's concept of structure and in turn Lacan's symbolic order. But there is an important difference between Lacan and Saussure. For Saussure, the two halves of the sign are always inextricably bound together - like two sides of a sheet of paper - and cannot be separated. Taking his cue from Lévi-Strauss's reflection on the autonomy of the symbolic function, it was precisely the indivisibility of the sign that Lacan brought into question.
The Primacy of the Signifier
Lacan accepted the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign but questioned two of the fundamental premises of Saussurean linguistics: the indivisibility of the sign and the prioritization of the signified over the signifier. In a famous example from 'The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud' (1977c ) Lacan dismisses the usual Saussurean illustration of the functioning of the sign, that is, the picture of a tree, and replaces it with another:
Lacan then proceeds to tell this story:
A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next to the window through which the buildings along the station platform can be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. 'Look', says the brother, 'we're at Ladies!'; 'Idiot!' replies his sister, 'Can't you see we're at Gentlemen'. (1977c : 152)
What this example reveals, argues Lacan, is the way in which the signifier enters the signified. The doors are identical, so what distinguishes one toilet door from the other is nothing except the signifier above the doors. What Lacan is proposing, therefore, is to reverse the priority Saussure bestowed upon the signified in the signifier/signified relation.
The capitalized Signifier takes precedence over the signified and the 'bar' between the two elements symbolizes, for Lacan, not the inseparability of the sign but its fundamental division. The bar functions as a barrier to meaning. What a signifier refers to is not a signified, as there is always a barrier between them, but to another signifier. In short, a signifier refers us to another signifier, which in turn refers us to another signifier in an almost endless chain of signification. If we try to define the meaning of a specific word or concept, for example, we can only do so through other words; we are caught in a continual process of producing signs.
Signification is always a process - a chain. None of its elements actually 'consist' of the meaning or the signified but rather each signifier 'insists' on a meaning, as it presses forward to the next signifier. Meaning is not fixed, or as Lacan puts it, there is 'an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier' (1977c : 154). Lacan, however, is not suggesting that there is no 'fixed' meaning at all. There are what he called 'anchoring points' or 'points de caption', where this incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier stops and allows for moments of stable signification. The point de caption literally designates an upholstery button of the kind one finds on sofas and mattresses and which are used to hold the stuffing in place. Saussure's 'scientific', as opposed to historical, analysis of language provided Lacan with a model to study Freud's 'talking-cure'. Saussure revealed how there was a 'structure' within us that governed what we say; for Lacan that structure is the unconscious. The unconscious is at once produced through language and governed by the rules of language. The precise mechanism through which this takes place was provided by Roman Jakobson.
Jakobson took up Saussure's distinction between the two axes of language - the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic - and proposed a correspondence between these axes and the rhetorical figures of metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is the use of a word or expression to describe something else without stating a direct comparison. Metonymy, on the other hand, is the use of a term for one thing applied to something else with which it is usually associated, for example, when one says 'crown' for the position of the monarch, or 'sail' to imply a boat. Jakobson pointed out that metaphor is an act of substitution of one term for another and thus corresponded to the paradigmatic axis, or the axis of selection. Metonymy is a relation of contiguity, in that one term refers to another because it is associated or adjacent to it, and therefore it corresponds to the syntagmatic axis, or the axis of combination. Lacan saw in Jakobson's structural model of metaphor and metonymy a direct correspondence with Freud's processes of dream work: condensation and displacement. Condensation designates the process whereby two or more signs or images in a dream are combined to form a composite image that is then invested with the meaning of both its constitutive elements. In persecutory dreams, for example, the dreamer may dream that they are being punished by an unknown authority figure and try to identify that figure with someone in their life. This figure may well in fact not be a single person, however, but a composite, or condensation, of a number of different persons - parental figures, employer or partner. All of the ambivalent feelings that the dreamer has around these figures combine into a single persecutor in the dream. Displacement describes the process through which meaning is transferred from one sign to another. Let us take the example of anxiety dreams. In anxiety dreams the dreamer may become anxious about some very minor incident in their lives, but this functions as simply a way of avoiding, or displacing, a much more serious problem that they are facing. These two processes are what Freud called primary processes in contrast to the secondary processes of conscious thought. By mapping Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy on to Freud's primary processes Lacan was finally able to demonstrate how the unconscious was structured like a language. The unconscious, he argued, operates according to the rules of metaphor and metonymy.
The Symbolic Order
Throughout the 1950s Lacan was concerned with elaborating a system according to which everything in the human world is structured 'in accordance with the symbols which have emerged' (Lacan 1988b : 29). Lacan is not saying here that everything is reducible to the symbolic, but that, once symbols have appeared, everything will be ordered, or structured, in accordance with those symbols and the laws of the symbolic, including the unconscious and human subjectivity. For Freud, the unconscious is that part of our existence that escapes us and over which we have no control, but at the same time which governs our thoughts and wishes. For Lacan, on the other hand, the unconscious consists of signifying material. The unconscious is a process of signification that is beyond our control; it is the language that speaks through us rather than the language we speak. In this sense, Lacan defines the unconscious as the discourse of the Other. The big Other is language, the symbolic order; this Other can never be fully assimilated to the subject; it is a radical otherness which, nevertheless, forms the core of our unconscious. We will see how this works in the following chapter, but first let us look at Lacan's conception of the subject and how it is determined by the signifier.
Lacan conceived of the symbolic order as a totalizing concept in the sense that it marks the limit of the human universe. We are born into language - the language through which the desires of others are articulated and through which we are forced to articulate our own desire. We are locked within what Lacan calls a circuit of discourse:
It is the discourse of the circuit in which I am integrated. I am one of its links. It is the discourse of my father, for instance, in so far as my father made mistakes which I am condemned to reproduce…. I am condemned to reproduce them because I am obliged to pick up again the discourse he bequeathed to me, not simply because I am his son, but because one can't stop the chain of discourse, and it is precisely my duty to transmit it in its aberrant form to someone else. (Lacan 1988b : 89)
We are born into this circuit of discourse; it marks us before our birth and will continue after our death. To be fully human we are subjected to this symbolic order - the order of language, of discourse; we cannot escape it, although as a structure it escapes us. As individual subjects, we can never fully grasp the social or symbolic totality that constitutes the sum of our universe, but that totality has a structuring force upon us as subjects.
In the previous chapter we saw how Lacan distinguished between the ego and the subject. The ego is an 'imaginary function' formed primarily through the subject's relationship to their own body. The subject, on the other hand, is constituted in the symbolic order and is determined by language. There is always a disjunction, according to Lacan, between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the utterance; in other words, the subject who speaks and the subject who is spoken. Following the linguist Emile Benveniste's (1902-76) conception of 'I' as a shifter - as having no specific referent but in the act of speech designating the person who says 'I' - Lacan argued that the 'I' in speech does not refer to anything stable in language at all. The 'I' can be occupied by a number of different phenomena: the subject, the ego or the unconscious. For example, in what Lacan called 'empty speech', the 'I' would correspond to the ego; in 'full speech' it corresponds to the subject; while at other times it corresponds to neither subject nor ego. This is what Lacan means when he says I is an other, that is to say, 'I' is not 'me'; these two terms do not refer to the same entity; the subject is not the same as the individual person - it is decentred in relation to the individual. In short, Lacan de-essentializes the 'I' and prioritizes the symbolic, the signifier, over the subject. It is the structure of language that speaks the subject and not the other way around. Lacan summarizes this in his famous statement, the subject is that which is represented by one signifier to another. The seminar on The Purloined Letter is nothing less than an exposition of this, whereby the subject is caught up in the chain of signification and it is the signifier that marks the subject, that defines the subject's position within the symbolic order.
The 1950s were a period of extraordinary innovation for Lacan. Through the influence of the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, Lacan developed his central notion of the symbolic order and the subject as subject of the signifier. This facilitated Lacan's break with traditional psychoanalysis and paved the way for his major innovation - the idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. In the following chapter we will see what Lacan means by this as well as what distinguishes the Lacanian from the Freudian unconscious and how the emphasis of his work changes from the mid-1960s onwards.