The theory of the four discourses
The theory of the four discourses It is important to remember that while Barthes, Derrida, Foucault and Levi-Strauss were university teachers Lacan was a practising psychoanalyst, known for his emphasis on 'the return to Freud'. At the beginning of the 1950s Lacan took this 'return to Freud' as a slogan with which to attack ego-psychology. I have already made a few brief remarks about Lacan's antagonism to ego-psycholo~
The uses of philosophy 39 and how he considered it as non-Freudian and even anti-Freudian. As a critique of ego-psychology runs through all of Lacan's postwar work, we should be clear about what ego-psychology is. Though it is often thought of as American, its origins are actually European. Its founders are Heinz Hartmann, Ernest Kris and Rudolph Loewenstein, and their 'work is based largely on Freud's second topology of id, ego and superego. For Hartmann and his associates, the three agencies, id, ego and superego, can be defined in terms of their functions: id functions are centred upon basic needs and a striving for instinctual gratification, ego functions centre upon adaptation to external reality and the superego functions focus upon moral demands. Freud vacillated between two quite different views of the ego which can be called the realist and the narcissistic. The 'realist' view is that the ego is an agency which intervenes in the conflict between the sexual wishes, which originate in the id, and the demands of reality. The ego acts like a filter in both directions, from the id to reality and from reality to the id. As already mentioned, Freud likens the ego to the rider of a horse; the horse signifies the energies of the id, energies which must be correctly harnessed if the rider is to keep his/her seat. Reality is represented by the path or destination the rider must entice and control the horse to follow. In this view, the ego protects the norms of social reality by modifying the 'unreasonable', impossible demands of the id, on the one hand; while on the other, the ego protects the id by shielding it from excessively strong stimuli coming from reality from harsh judgements, the absence of desired objects. It should be noted that in the above, realist model, two terms are given and unquestioned, the id being a function of biology, and reality an unalterable, ahistorical system, 'civilisation'. It is claimed by ego-psychologists that the ego contains within it elements which mature and develop into a 'conflict-free ego sphere' which transcends conflicts and which is regarded as autonomous. Ego-psychologists focus on the way the ego neutralises instinctual drives and the strength of the id, harnesses them and uses them to further the work of adaptation. According to egopsychologists the aim of analysis is to strengthen the ego. The analysis is seen as a process whereby the patient, the analysand, comes to identify with the strong ego of the analyst. I 40 Jacques Lacan Where ego-psychology refers to the realist view, Lacan relies on Freud's second or narcissistic account of the ego. The narcissistic ego is fluid and mobile, consisting of a series of identifications, internalisations of images/perceptions. In contrast with the ego psychologists Lacan believes that 'the core of our being does not coincide with the ego'. Drawing on Freud's paper 'On narcissism', Lacan argues that the ego is not organised by the reality system, precisely because all its structures are characterised by the effect of misrecognition.1s In Lacan's view the ego cannot judge reality, or mediate between reality and desire because it is always marked by error, misrecognition or lack. Lacan often refers to the 'perverse genius' of La Rochefoucauld _ and asserts that the Nietzsche of On the Genealogy of Morals and La Rochefoucauld were the precursors of Freud. Rochefoudmld is the great theorist of amour-propre (self-love), or what we ma~\ now call 'narcissism'. He believed that self-love was the mainsP'l:ing behind all human behaviour and that it concealed itself beh~l countless masks and disguises. For Lacan the notion of amou propre represents a glimpse into the narcissistic structure of the egq.16 He establishes an opposition between La Rochefoucauld and Descartes. Lacan's new view of the subject challenges the European philosophical tradition, often personified for Lacan by Descartes. Descartes's proposition 'I think, therefore I am' implies the importance of thought, of the conscious. The Cartesian subject is identified with the ego. Lacan wants to emphasise the uncon- scious, which he never sees as 'primitive', 'dark' or 'negative'. Lacan is always on good terms with the unconscious; he therefore reverses Descartes's maxim and says: 'I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think'. 17 Lacan is antagonistic to those forms of thinking based on 'the centre' and 'the fixed point'. He declares that the Copernican Revolution failed to dislodge the prestige of the centre: it shifted from man and the earth to the sun, but it is still the idea of the centre that controls discourse. Kepler was more radical than Copernicus in his thinking because of his notion of the ellipsis, which had no centre. This point is important because Lacan's critique of the individual ego is based on his objection to the notion of centring, of making the centre the point of view from which to assess and evaluate human being. It was argued by Lacan that in the classical philosophers one
The uses of philosophy 41 always finds (in one place or another) a fixed point, which gives the mind repose and makes truth into a stable relationship: with the known object, with the knowing subject, with Reason or with History. He believed that you can never tell the whole truth because in order to say everything, you would need more time, more words: 'I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there's no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail.'18 Lacan saw truth as a relationship between a subject and the unconscious. But where the unconscious is involved, nothing is guaranteed. No certainty remains. I will conclude this chapter by returning to the theme with which I began: Lacan's objection to the totalising ambitions of philosophy and to its pretentions to be able to tell the whole truth. In 1969 Lacan gave a seminar on the four fundamental structures of discourse. A discourse is a mode of human relatedness mediated by speech, and the human subject is a subject of speech. The subject - transitory, evanescent, always elsewhere emerges when it is inserted into the signifying system of the symbolic order as soon as it begins actively to speak. The subject is an .effect of the signifiers that represent it, sliding from one to another along the signifying chain. I speak without knowing it. I speak with my body, and this without knowing it. I always say more than I know. Now, the four modes of discourse are those of the master, the 'university, the hysteric and the psychoanalyst. These four modes rarely exist in pure form. In the concrete they are often a blend of several modes; in their schematised form they serve the purposes of analysis and exposition only. This is Lacan's most overtly political seminar; we must remember that the students had only recently participated in the struggles of May 1968. Lacan's objections to totalisation are expressed in the critique of the 'discourse of the master'. Very simply, the discourse of the master originates in the attempt to attain the moment of absolute knowledge described by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind. For Lacan such knowledge can only be illusory in that it implies an unattainable unity, that is to say, a knowledge which brings together truth and the knowing self in a unity. In Lacanian terms, unity - or the illusion of it - belongs within the realm of the imaginary and of the narcissistic functions of the ego. There is, in other words, a clear link between the 42 Jacques Lacan illusion of mastery and absolute knowledge or power, and the illusory identity of the ego. I said above that the discourse of the master was related to the illusory moment of absolute knowledge. In later years Lacan made the discourse of the master synonymous with the discourse of philosophy. The philosopher, like the master, seeks a totality of illusory knowledge. At the other extreme, the hysteric constantly re-enacts the Socratic role of asking questions, demanding knowledge from the master. Incidentally, it is at the insistent urging of the hysteric that science 'takes off; after all, was it not female hysterics who stimulated Freud into discovering psychoanalysis itself?19 Master and hysteric thus coexist in a state of symbiosis, \,\ith the hysteric _ demanding knowledge and the master striving t~attain absolute knowledge in response. The discourse of the university is that of the master reintQI:ced by mystification and obscurantism. It, too, is concerned with m~ tery in the sense that one might speak of mastering a discipline, but at every stage it is forced to confess to the inadequacy of its acquired knowledge, thereby reproducing the non-mastery of its students. Psychoanalytic discourse subverts the discourses of both the master and the university by insisting that the whole truth can never be spoken, that totality is an imaginary, illusory notion. At the same time it allows the hysteric to speak, thus stimulating the drive towards knowledge, but also undercutting the hysteric's illusion that the master knows all. Lacan insists that these four discourses exist within a system of permutations - the theory seems to be a universal system of classification - and that they require one another's existence. The hysteric and the analyst need one another, and the university requires a master to justify its teachings. I find the discourses of the master and the psychoanalyst particularly interesting because one is the reverse of the other. In the discourse of the master a certain mastery or control is manifest. Medical discourse would be one example. (But note that the word master connotes 'slave' at one time and 'disciple' at another.) The discourse of the master involves the exercise of power and an expanding body of knowledge. In contrast, the task of psychoanalytic discourse is to follow the flow of the signifying chain, not for its own sake, but in order to discern the course of desire in its \
The uses of philosophy 43 quest for objet-petit-a (the object which, unchains desire). What characterises the discourse of the analyst is the primacy of the subject in futile quest for the irretrievable object that causes its desire. Towards the end of his life, Lacan became increasingly concerned with mathematical formalism and, by about 1972, he seems to have become alienated from philosophy. He began to think of philosophy as no more than a variation of the discourse of the master. Why was this? One explanation for this is that metaphysics (a central part of metaphysics is ontology. This studies Being), by reason of its abstraction, partakes of the same generality and disregard of the unique subjectivity as the discourse of the master. Second, philosophy, by reason of its pretension to articulate truth, aspires to an analogous power. Some thinkers, like Heidegger for example, believe that the proper object of philosophy is Being. For Lacan, what is primordial in specifically human experience is not being but language and speech. He insists that there is no pre-discursive reality. Every reality is founded in and defined by a discourse. Men, women and children are only signifiers; being is a function of speech. It could be argued that Lacan's ultimate rejection of philosophy is a direct consequence of his thesis about the primacy oflanguage over (metaphysical) Being. It is because of this primacy that the next chapter is devoted to language, what Lacan calls the SymboliC. I agree with the suggestion that the irreducible difference between the philosophic and the psychoanalytic must be respected.20 If one allows that philosophy's concern is with being, one must also recognise that the concern of psychoanalysis is with lack-of-being.