From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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Structure (Structure) When Lacan uses the term 'structure' in his early

work of the 1930s, it is to refer to 'social structures', by which he means a

specific set of affective relations between family members. The child perceives

these relations much more profoundly than the adult, and internalises them in

the COMPLEX (Ec, 89). The term serves as a peg upon which Lacan can hang his

  own views of the 'relational'         nature of the psyche, in opposition to the

atomistic theories then current in psychology (Lacan, 1936). From this point

on, the term 'structure' retains this sense of something both intersubjective and

intrasubjective, the internal representation of interpersonal relations. This

remains a key point throughout Lacan's work, in which the emphasis on

structure is a constant reminder that what determines the subject is not some

supposed 'essence' but simply his position with respect to other subjects and

other signifiers. Already in 1938, we find Lacan arguing that 'the most notable

defect of analytic doctrine' at that time was that it tended 'to ignore structure

in favour of a dynamic approach' (Lacan, 1938: 58). This anticipates his later

emphasis on the symbolic order as the realm of structure which analysts have

ignored in favour of the imaginary; 'social structures are symbolic' (Ec, 132).

    In the mid-1950s, when Lacan begins to reformulate his ideas in terms

borrowed from Saussurean structural linguistics, the term 'structure' comes

to be increasingly associated with Saussure's model of LANGUAGE. Saussure

analysed language (la langue) as a system in which there are no positive terms,

only differences (Saussure, 1916: 120). It is this concept of a system in which

each unit is constituted purely by virtue of its differences from the other units

which comes to constitute the core meaning of the term 'structure' in Lacan's

work from this point on. Language is the paradigmatic structure, and Lacan's

famous dictum, 'the unconscious is structured like a language', is therefore

tautologous, since 'to be structured' and 'to be like a language' mean the same


     Saussure's structural approach to linguistics           was developed further by

Roman Jakobson, who developed phoneme theory; Jakobson's work was

then taken up by the French anthropologist, Claude LÈvi-Strauss, who used

the structural phonemic model to analyse non-linguistic cultural data such as

kinship relations and myth. This application of structural analysis to anthro-

pology launched the structuralist movement by showing how the Saussurean

concept of structure could be applied to an object of enquiry other than

language. Lacan was heavily influenced by all three of these thinkers, and in

this sense he can be seen as part of the structuralist movement. However,

Lacan prefers to dissociate himself from this movement, arguing that his

approach differs in important ways from the structuralist approach (S20, 93).

     Alongside the references to language, Lacan also refers the concept of

structure tO MATHEMATICS, principally to set theory and TOPOLOGY. In 1956,

for example, he states that 'a structure is in the first place a group of elements

forming a covariant set' (S3, 183). Two years later he again links the concept

of structure with mathematical set theory, and adds a reference to topology

(Ec, 648-9). By the 1970s, topology has replaced language as the principal

paradigm of structure for Lacan. He now argues that topology is not a mere

metaphor for structure; it is that structure itself (Lacan, 1973b).

     The concept of structure is often taken to imply        an opposition between

surface and depth, between directly observable phenomena and 'deep struc-

tures' which are not the object of immediate experience. Such would seem to

be the opposition implied in the distinction Lacan draws between SYMPTOMS

(surface) and structures (depth). However, Lacan does not in fact agree that

such an opposition is implicit in the concept of structure (Ec, 649). On the one

hand, he rejects the concept of 'directly observable phenomena', arguing that

observation is always already theoretical. On the other hand, he also rejects the

idea that structures are somehow 'deep' or distant from experience, arguing

that they are present in the field of experience itself; the unconscious is on the

surface, and looking for it in 'the depths' is to miss it. As with many other

binary oppositions, the model Lacan prefers is that of the moebius strip; just as

the two sides of the strip are in fact continuous, so structure is continuous with


    The most important feature of structural analysis is not, then, any supposed

distinction between surface and depth, but, as LÈvi-Strauss shows in his

structural analysis of myth, the discovery of fixed relations between loci

which are themselves empty (LÈvi-Strauss, 1955). In other words, whatever

elements may be placed in the positions specified by a given structure, the

relations between the positions themselves remain the same. Thus the ele-

ments interact not on the basis of any inherent or intrinsic properties they

possess, but simply on the basis of the positions which they occupy in the


    In line with many other psychoanalysts, Lacan distinguishes three principal

nosographic categories; NEUROSIS, PSYCHOSIs and PERVERSION. His originality lies

in the fact that he regards these categories as structures rather than simply as

collections of symptoms. (N.B. Lacan prefers to speak in terms of 'Freudian

structures' rather than 'clinical structures', but the latter term is the one which

predominates in the writings of Lacanian psychoanalysts today.)

    Lacanian nosography is      a categorical classification system based         on  a

discrete series, rather than a dimensional system based on a continuum. The

three major clinical structures are therefore mutually exclusive; a subject

cannot be both neurotic and psychotic, for example. The three major clinical

structures together constitute all the three possible positions of the subject in

relation to the Other; every subject encountered in psychoanalytic treatment

can therefore be diagnosed as either neurotic, or psychotic, or perverse. Each

structure is distinguished by a different operation: neurosis by the operation of

repression, perversion by the operation of disavowal, and psychosis by the

operation of foreclosure. Lacan follows Freud in arguing that the classical

method of psychoanalytic treatment (involving free association and the use of

the couch) is only appropriate for neurotic subjects and perverse subjects, and

not for psychotics. Thus when Lacanian analysts work with psychotic patients,

they use a substantially modified method of treatment.

    One of the most fundamental axioms of psychoanalysis is that the subject's

clinical structure is determined by his experiences in the nrst years of life. In

this sense, psychoanalysis is based on a 'critical period hypothesis'; the first

years of life are the critical period in which the subject's structure is deter-

mined. Although it is not clear how long this critical period lasts, it is held that

after this critical period the clinical structure is fixed for ever and cannot be

changed. Neither psychoanalytic treatment nor anything else can, for example,

  turn  a psychotic into     a neurotic.Within each of the three major clinical
  structures Lacan distinguishes various subdivisions. For example within the

clinical structure of neurosis, he distinguishes two kinds of neurosis (obses-

sional neurosis and hysteria), and within the clinical structure of psychosis he

distinguishes between paranoia, schizophrenia and manic-depressive psycho-