Primacy of the Signifier
Primacy of the Signifier
The phrase "the primacy of the signifier" suggests that signifier and signified do not coevally constitute the sign. The primacy of the signifier is, however, primarily of interest in parole (actual instances of discourse) and therefore in the study of the individual psyche. Parole is signifier-driven human interaction where the signified is introduced and the psyche is inscribed by the associated interaction happening in "real time" and real relationships where the messy business of everyday life is shaping the subject. Signifiers drive discursive engagement so that we are infused and influenced by signifiers moderating and informing every experience and creating links with experiences and exchanges at other times and places. The words used may evoke words that you heard your father say, or catch the tone of voice and phrasing of your estranged lover; they may make you cringe or fill you with a sense [End Page 67] of your own inadequacy. Importantly, the primacy of the signifier does not mean that the signifier ever exists without the signified, but it does mean that we are multiply inscribed by signifiers and that those inscriptions form our psyches and inform our subjectivities.
The psychic effects of the signifier are not fully explicable by detailing semantic contents (as ideally captured by public sense; Husserl's or Frege's Sinn). The significance of a sign to a subject is, as Lacan says, a function of its resonance with the subject's unconscious. We should also note that signifiers function not only on the basis of their associated semantic content, but also grammatically and even acoustically. That is why writers like Lewis Carroll can construct poetry out of nonsense words without making explicit exactly what is being signified: His "vorpel blade went snicker snack" has an obvious resonance through something like onomatopoeia and neologistic signifiers generally evoke meanings that are quirky or amusing through far less immediately recognizable associations.
These are all cases of conscious activities involving the primacy of the signifier in society where it is well accepted not only as a cause of semantic mistakes but as a legitimate way of evoking new and unusual semantic effects. A quick glance at the neurobiological implications of this reading of Lacan paves the way for a summary of his relevance for the philosophy of psychiatry.