signifier (sigmfiant) Lacan takes the term 'signifier' from the work of
the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. The term was not used by Freud,
who was unaware of Saussure's work. According to Saussure, the signifier is
the phonological element of the SIGN; not the actual sound itself, but the mental
image of such a sound. In Saussure's terms, the signifier is the 'acoustic image'
which signifies a SIGNIFIED (Saussure, 1916: 66--7).
Whereas Saussure argues that the signifier and the signified are mutually
interdependent, Lacan states that the signifier is primary and produces the
signified. 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' (S3, 185).
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.
Thus for Lacan language is not a system of signs (as it was for Saussure) but
a system of signifiers. 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' (E, 152).
By the phrase 'reducible to ultimate differential elements', Lacan follows
Saussure in asserting the fundamentally differential character of the signifier.
Saussure states that in language there are no positive terms, only differences
(Saussure, 1916: 120).
By the phrase 'combining according to the laws of a closed order', Lacan
asserts that signifiers are combined in signifying chains according to the laws
The signifier is the constitutive unit of the symbolic order because it is
integrally related with the concept of STRUCTURE; 'the notion of structure and
that of signifier appear inseparable' (S3, 184). The field of the signifier is the
field of the Other, which Lacan calls 'the battery of signifiers'.
Lacan defines a signifier as 'that which represents a subject for another
signifier', in opposition to the sign, which 'represents something for some-
one'. (Sll, 207). To be more precise, one signifier (called the master signifier,
and written Si) represents the subject for all other signifiers (written S2)∑
However, no signifier can signifv the subject.
Although the term 'signifier' is absent from Freud's work, Lacan's use of the
term focuses attention on a recurrent theme in Freud's writings. Freud's
examples of psychoanalytic interpretations constantly focus on purely formal
linguistic features. For example, he analyses his own failure to remember the
name 'Signorelli' by dividing the word into formal segments and following the
associative links with each segment (Freud, 1901: ch. 1). 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 theorise Freud's own
method in more rigorous terms.
While it is true that when Lacan talks about signifiers he is often referring to
what others would call simply 'words', the two terms are not equivalent. 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 (S4, 288). The single condition which characterises 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 (S4, 289); on the contrary, its meaning varies
according to the position which it occupies in the structure.