Ferdinand de Saussure
Primacy of the Signifier
The signifier is first of all a meaningless material element in a closed differential system; this "signifier without the signified" is called by Lacan the "pure signifier", though this is a question of logical rather than chronological precedence.
"Every real signifier is, as such, a signifier that signifies nothing. The more the signifier signifies nothing, the more indestructible it is."
The Subject and the Unconscious
It is these meaningless indestructible signifiers which determine the subject; the effects of the signifier on the subject constitute the unconscious, and hence also constitute the whole of the field of psychoanalysis.
Basic Units of Language
Signifiers are the basic units of language, and they are "subjected to the double condition of being reducible to ultimate differential elements and of combining according to the laws of a closed order."
"The notion of structure and that of signifier appear inseparable."
That Which Represents a Subject for Another Signifier
Thus Lacan's insistence that the analyst attend to the signifiers in the analysand's speech is not really an innovation in technique but an attempt to theorize Freud's own method in more rigorous terms.
Words and Non-Linguistic Things
Not only can units of language smaller than words (morphemes and phonemes) or larger than words (phrases and sentences) also function as signifiers, but so also can non-linguistic things such as objects, relationships and symptomatic acts.
Differential Nature of the Signifier
The single condition which characterizes something as a signifier, for Lacan, is that it is inscribed in a system in which it takes on value purely by virtue of its difference from the other elements in the system.
It is this differential nature of the signifier which means that it can never have a univocal or fixed meaning; on the contrary, its meaning varies according to the position which it occupies in the structure.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p. 66-7
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 185
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 152
- Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916) Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin, Glasgow: Collins Fontana. p. 120
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 184
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 207
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 288
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 289