Master-Signifier

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As I stated at the end of Part 2, Lacan assigns great importance in his theorisation of the psychoanalytic process to what he calls 'master signifiers'. These are those signifiers that the subject most deeply identifies with, and which accordingly have a key role in the way s/he gives meaning to the world. As was stressed, Lacan's idea about these signifiers is that their primary importance is less any positive content that they add to the subject's field of symbolic sense. It is rather the efficacy they have in reorienting the subject vis-à-vis all of the other signifiers which structure his/her sense of herself and the world. It is precisely this primarily structural or formal function that underlies the crucial Lacanian claim that master signifiers are actually 'empty signifiers' or ‘signifiers without a signified’. As with all of Lacan's key formulations, the notion that the master signifiers are 'signifiers without signified’ is a complex one. Even the key idea is the following. The concept and /or referent signified by any 'master signifier' will always be something impossible for any one individual to fully comprehend. For example, 'Australian-ness' would seem to be what is aimed at when someone proffers the self-identification: 'I am an Australian'. The Lacanian question here is: what is 'Australian' being used by the subject to designate here? Is ‘Australian-ness’ something that inheres in everyone who is born in Australia? Or is it a characteristic that is passed on through the medium of culture primarily? Does it, perhaps, name most deeply some virtues or qualities of character all Australians supposedly have? However, even if we take it that all 'Australians' share some basic virtues, which are these? Can a closed list everyone would agree upon be feasibly drawn up? Is it not easy to think of other peoples who share in valuing each individual trait we standardly call 'Australian' (eg: courage, disrespect for pomposity)? And, since 'Australian' would seem to have to aim at a singular entity, not a collection, or else some grounding quality of character that could perhaps unite all of the others, which is this? And is this 'essential’ quality- again- simply biological, perhaps genetic, or is it metaphysical, or what? What Lacan's account of 'master signifiers’ thus emphasizes is the gap between two things. The first is our initial certainty about the nature of such an apparently obvious thing as 'Australian-ness'. (We may even get vexed when asked by someone). The second thing is the difficulty that we have of putting this certainty into words, or naming something that would correspond to the 'essence' of ‘Australian-ness’, beneath all the different appearances. What Lacan indeed argues, in line with his emphasis on the decentred self, is that our ongoing and usually unquestioning use of these words represents another clear case of how the construction of sense depends on the transferential supposition of 'Others supposed to know'. Though we ourselves can never simply state what 'Australian-ness', etc. is, that is, Lacan argues that what is nevertheless efficient in generating our belief in (and identification with) this elusive 'thing' is a conviction that nevertheless other people certainly know its nature, or seem to. Just as we desire through the Other, for this reason Lacanian theory also maintains that belief is always belief through an Other (for example, in the Christian religion, priests would be the designated Others supposed to know the meaning of the Christian mystery vouchsafing believers' faith). At this point, it is appropriate to recall from Part 1 Lacan's thesis that castration marks the point wherein the child is made to renounce its aspiration to be the phallic Thing for the mother. A subject's castration amounts at base, for Lacan, to the acceptance that it is the injunctions of the father- and through his name the conventions of the big Other of society- that govern the desire of the mother. The 'master signifiers' are also what Lacan calls phallic signifiers. The reason is exactly that- despite the difficulty of locating any simple referent for them- they nevertheless are the words that seem to intimate to subjects what 'really matters' about human existence. While no Christian believer may know what ‘God’ is, nevertheless s/he will be in no doubt of the transcendent importance of whatever It is that this word names. Lacan thus is drawing together his philosophical anthropology and his theorization of language when he defends the position that it is the consequence of 'castration' that subjects are debarred from immediate knowledge of what it is that the ‘phallic signifiers’ signify. He is also arguing, in the psychoanalytic field, a position profoundly akin to the Kantian postulation that finite human subjects are debarred from immediate access to things in themselves. Lacan's argument is that it is this lost 'signified', which would as it were be ‘more real’ than the other things that the subject can readily signify, that is what is primordially repressed when the subject accedes to becoming a speaking subject at castration. When the subject accedes to the symbolic, he repeats, the Real of aspired-to incestuous union, and the sexualized transgressive enjoyment or jouissance it would afford, is necessarily debarred.