La Langue Versus Parole
The relation between the signifier and the signified must, in general, be constant enough to yield determinate meanings based on the conventional uses of signs. The congruence between your signified content and mine (in a given social context) as the basis of communication is usually explained by the fact that we are both engaged in a shared human environment obeying rules that [End Page 66] govern the meanings of our words and relate us to that environment and the conditions pertaining there.
We have noted that language provides an individual with the resources to attach meaning to what happens to him or her and that Lacan refers to the complex set of signs that an individual has at her disposal as a network of signifiers. As such it works more or less automatically in that the meanings of words come to us unbidden, as it were (although we can reflect on their interconnected uses). The term network introduces the structuralist emphasis on the connections between signs as an important supplement to the links between the sign and the world. These structural connections reveal (to quote Wittgenstein) "the post at which we station the word" (1953, 29) and vary greatly in complexity. Some signifiers have few connections and play relatively simple roles in our language-related activities, for example, that or here rely on connections only with demonstrative gestures (and contrasting demonstratives like this or there). Other signifiers are more complex (insect, for instance).
Each individual's network is distinctive in some ways because it is formed in parole, those myriad particular interactions where a language is learned. It is therefore dynamic in the face of life situations where new techniques of interaction with objects (including people) are mediated by speech (parole). Different scenarios require different signifiers, connect different signifiers, and make certain signifiers more important than others, resulting in different networks. Therefore the signifier "God" or "father" can be subtly different for everyone but, in psychic terms, there is an authority and overarching absent presence central in the meaning complex. A conductor may have many conceptual connections involving the signifier "Mozart," whereas a layman may only know that it has something to do with music and a Bantu tribesman in a remote village may not attach any meaning to "Mozart" (and may not even have the structural resources to understand the meaning of "quark").
Different uses of signs in the public world are correctable or explicable so that, even if different individuals have different networks, these are normally commensurable. In learning to interact with others, we recognize that they might have different networks of signifiers. But the divergences are usually comprehensible in that even though you may not expect a stranger to have a strong emotional reaction to the signifier "rain" you would understand the moment that you realized that he is a drought-stricken farmer. Signifiers that are likely to represent very important things for everybody, such as "father" or "mother" are emotionally loaded, but not always in the expected (validated or orderly) way. Proper names, like Robert, may be similar because they a draw their meaning from interpersonal encounters and can map onto the networks of others in as many ways as there are located social trajectories.
The words we share are therefore complex and carry with them what Freud calls "mnemonic residues" of a myriad encounters. They are clues and entry points into the network of signifiers constrained but not exhausted by la Langue. When we contemplate the formation of that network, and the associations that form Freud's mnemonic residues, we can see why Lacan stresses the primacy of the signifier.