Jacques Lacan:The Subject of the Unconscious

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The unconscious must "be apprehended in its experience of rupture, between perception and consciousness, in that nontemporal locus... Freud calls another scene."[1]

The unconscious manifests itself at those moments in which processes beyond conscious thought disrupt speech, points when language fails. Lacan defines the unconscious in terms of "impediment", "failure" and "splitting". The unconscious is precisely this gap or rupture in the symbolic chain.

That the unconscious is structured like a language is Lacan's central thesis and probably his most influential contribution to psychoanalysis

The unconscious is governed by the rules of the signifier as it is language

We can only know the unconscious through speech and language; therefore.

the unconscious is constituted through the subject's articulation in the symbolic order. The Lacanian unconscious is not an individual unconscious, in the sense that Freud speaks of the unconscious

The Lacanian unconscious is rather the effect of a trans-individual symbolic order upon the subject. We can draw from this three related theses:

  1. The unconscious is not biological but is something that signifies.
  2. The unconscious is the effect - the impact - upon the subject of the trans-individual symbolic order.
  3. The unconscious is structured like a language.

Fink argues that the Lacanian unconscious is not only structured like a language but is language, insofar as it is language that makes up the unconscious. This involves us in rethinking, however, what we mean by language. Language, for Lacan, designates not simply verbal speech or written text but any signifying system that is based upon differential relations. The unconscious is structured like a language in the sense that it is a signifying process that involves coding and decoding, or ciphering and deciphering. The unconscious comes into being in the symbolic order in the gap between signifier and signified, through the sliding of the signified beneath the signifier and the failure of meaning to be fixed (see Chapter 2). In short, the unconscious is something that signifies and must be deciphered.


Lacan defines the unconscious as the "discourse of the Other."[2]