Cultural Studies Essays - Jacques Lacan

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Lacan's View of the Linguistic Structure of the Unconscious and Implications for the Relevance ofPsychoanalysis to the Social World

Jacques Lacan has been called the most influential psychoanalystsince Freud. The impact of his work, both as a theory of the unconscious andas a repertoire of clinical practices, is reflected in the use of Lacanianmethods by over half of psychoanalysts worldwide. Lacanian concepts andconstructs also are thriving outside the consulting room, in the studies ofliterature and film, in feminist studies and legal studies, internationalrelations and social policy.

But what does psychoanalysis have to do with the social world? Historians,social and political scientists have contested a role for psychoanalysis in theirrespective social domains. There is fear that psychological reductionisminevitably results, lowering the 'objective' social sphere to the subjectivelevel of a 'culture on a couch'. However, the theory and practice ofpsychoanalysis need not be atomistic. Freud regarded the study ofinstitutions, languages, literature and art as a necessary prerequisite tosuccessfully comprehending the analytic experience. Like Freud, and in hisproject of returning to Freud, Jacques Lacan studied and borrowed from a rangeof disparate fields, including philosophy, structuralist anthropology,literature, music, topography and semiology/linguistics. He agreed with Freudon the legitimacy of social analysis inspired from a psychoanalyticperspective. In A Theoretical Introduction to the Functions of Psychoanalysisin Criminology (1950), Lacan expressed his position as follows:

It may be well thatsince its experience is limited to the individual, psychoanalysis cannot claimto grasp the totality of any sociological object, or even the entirety ofcauses currently operating in our society. Even so, in its treatment of theindividual, psychoanalysis has discovered relational tensions that appear toplay a fundamental role in all societies, as if the discontent in civilizationwent so far as to reveal the very joint of nature to culture. If one makes theappropriate transformation, one can extend the formulas of psychoanalysisconcerning this joint to certain human sciences that can utilize them(Stavrakakis, 1999, p. 3).

Anthony Elliott (1992) cited Lacan's ideas as establishing theprincipal terms of reference for thinking about the interconnections betweenthe psyche and social field (p. 2).

In this vein, Feher-Gurewich contended that Lacan's psychoanalyticapproach is founded on premises that are in sharp contrast to the ones whichhave led to the failure of an alliance between psychoanalysis and socialtheory (Stavrakakis, 1999, p. 14).

One set of these premises is the topic of this discussion. Thefollowing is an attempt to explain Lacan's claim that the unconscious isstructured like a language and to discuss the bearing this claim has on therelevance of psychoanalysis to the social world.

First, a brief overview of Lacan's career, or 'project,' may assistin supporting this analysis.

Overview of Lacan's Project

Although many perceive his theoretical works as impenetrable or asan incoherent jumble, there are common threads throughout. Lacan consistentlyviewed his mission to be a return to Freud. The keynote for this return washis placement of language as the central construct in theory and in practice(Clement, 1983).

The Mirror Stage

Beginning in the late 1930s, after the publication of numerous casestudies, Lacan began to focus on the emergence of the sense of self, thefunction of the I. He termed this emergence the Mirror Stage in thedevelopment of a child's sense of self during the first two years of life. Drawingupon revelations from his own psychoanalytic experience, together with the workof psychologists such as Henri Wallon, Charlotte Bühler, and Otto Rank, Lacan positedthat the child's emergent sense of self is formed upon entry into language, therealm of the symbolic, and always in reference to some "other. Thatother could be the child's own image in a mirror, the mother or any number of otherobjects with which the child associated self via Freud's mechanism of narcissisticidentification.

The mirror stage is the origin of a fundamental alienation or split inthe individual's sense of self. The speaking subject (I) becomes de-centeredfrom the ideal ego (me). Because self is oriented toward an 'other' who isperceived as ideal/omnipotent, and thus as a potential rival to the self, theego that emerges from this stage is characterized by a hostility that threatensits very existence. Lacan concluded that human identity is formed only within thisintersubjective context in which alienation and aggressivity characterize thenatural state. Rather than being the first step toward the formation of ahealthy and stable ego, his proposal that méconnaissance, ormisperception, is central to the ego formation flew in the face of a basicconstruct of ego psychology, that the ego is the origin and basis of psychicstability. In 1953, Lacan broke with the dominant faction of ego psychologistsand formed his own professional group, the Société franaise de psychanalytique(SFP).

The Discourse of Rome

During the first meeting of this group, in Rome that year, Lacanpresented a paper which quickly became known as the manifesto of the newsociety. He argued that speech and, more generally, language were central topsychoanalytic practice and to any theoretical conclusions that might beextrapolated from it. He drew upon and adapted the semiologic principles of Ferdinandde Saussure and the philosophical traditions of Hegel for his theoreticalvocabulary. It is during this time that Lacan's public focus shifted clearlyfrom the developmental to the linguistic. Drawing from the language of music,he posited three registers of functioning, the symbolic, imaginary and real.The symbolic, a function of speech/language, was seen as central and in dynamicinteraction with the imaginary.

Lacan's acerbic characterization of the ego as the seat of neurosisrather than the source of psychic integration and his emphasis on the symbolicorganization of the human psyche opened new territory for psychoanalytic theory.Lacan credited Freud with the concept and blamed his ego-psychologist followersfor obscuring the point.


The charge that psychoanalysts had abandoned the founding texts oftheir profession exacerbated tensions between the ego psychology and the SFPuntil Lacan left the group in 1963 to form another organization, the ÉcoleFreudienne de Paris (EFP). Lacan continued his close readings of Freud'stexts, but he now began to introduce a number of terms and concepts not foundin Freud's own work. By the time his selected essays appeared 1966, hisseminars were standing-room-only. Many in the crowd associated him with structuralistssuch as Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault. As withother members of this group, Lacan was often criticized for the difficulty ofhis style. Within the EFP itself, many of the practicing analysts wereconcerned about what they perceived as the increasingly theoretical andacademic emphasis of Lacan's work. During this stage of his career, Lacan began work toward a"meta-theory" of psychoanalysis, constructing ideas about Lacanianideas. His construct of the three registers expanded to three-plusdimensions. He attempted to recast his earlier insights in the more preciselanguage of mathematics, employing topological figures, such as the Kleinbottle and Borromean knot, to illustrate and explore the relationship among histheoretical constructs. However, many of Lacan's followers criticized thisapproach, complaining that his arguments were increasingly incomprehensible andirrelevant to clinical practice. Lacan's response was the dissolution the EFPand the founding of yet another association, the École de la Cause Freudienne,which he directed until his death in 1981.

The Structure of the Unconscious and Relevance to the Social World

In the Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, Freudcommented that the unconscious can be compared to a language without a grammar(Laplanche & Pontalis, 1983). Lacan, using structuralist linguistics,attempted to systematize this contention, arguing that the unconscious isstructured like a language, and that 'it speaks'/ ca parle. A symptom,Lacan claimed, may be read as an embodied metaphor. As Freud had argued, whatis at stake within a symptom is a repressed desire objectionable to theconsciously accepted self-conception and values of the subject. This desire,if it is to gain satisfaction at all, accordingly needs to be expressedindirectly. For example, a residual infantile desire to masturbate may findsatisfaction indirectly in a compulsive ritual the subject feels compelled torepeat. Just as one might metaphorically describe one's love as a rose, Lacanargues, here we have a repressed desire being metaphorically expressed in someapparently dissimilar bodily activity. Equally, drawing on certain momentswithin Freud's papers On the Psychology of Love, Lacan argues that desire isstructured as a metonymy. In metonymy, one designates a whole concept (e.g.: militaryforce) by naming a component of it (e.g.: a sword). Lacan's argument is that,equally, since castration denies subjects full access to their first loveobject (the mother), their choice of subsequent love objects is the choice of aseries of objects that each resemble in part the lost object.

According to Lacan, the unconscious uses the multivalent resourcesof the natural language into which the subject has been inducted (what he calls'the battery of the signifier') to give indirect vent to the desires that thesubject cannot consciously avow.

While Freud is interested in investigating how the polymorphouslyperverse child forms an unconscious and a superego, and becomes a civilizedadult, Lacan's focus is on how the infant develops the illusion commonly termedas a "self. His essay on the Mirror Stage describes that process,showing how the infant forms an illusion of an ego, of a unified conscious selfidentified by the word "I."

For Lacan's theory, the notion that the unconscious, which governsall factors of human existence, is structured like a language is central. Freud'saccount of the two main mechanisms of unconscious processes, condensation anddisplacement, reinforce this claim. Both are essentially linguistic phenomena;meaning is either condensed (in metaphor) or displaced (in metonymy). Lacan notedthat Freud's dream analyses, and most of his analyses of the unconscioussymbolism used by his patients, depend on word-play (e.g., puns, associations,etc.) that are chiefly verbal. According to Lacan, the contents of theunconscious are acutely aware of language and of the structure of language.Hence, the unconscious, structured like a language, serves to reveal a symptomof neurosis or psychosis through this medium.

Lacan followed ideas laid out by Saussure, but adapted them to hisuse. He argued that Freud had understood the linguistic nature of humanpsychology but that he had simply lacked the Saussurean vocabulary necessary toarticulate it. Saussure talked about the relationship between signifier andsignified in the formation of a sign, and contended that language is structuredby the negative relation among signs (i.e., the existence of a sign isdependent on its distinction from another sign). For Lacan, the contents ofthe unconscious form signifiers and these signifiers form a "signifyingchain." One signifier has meaning only if it is distinct from some othersignifier. There are no 'signifieds' in Lacan's model; there is nothing towhich a signifier ultimately refers. If there were, then the meaning of anyparticular signifier would be relatively stable; there would be a relation ofsignification between signifier and signified, and that relation would yieldmeaning. Lacan posited that relations of signification do not exist in theunconscious; rather, there are only negative relations in which one signifiercan exist only if it is distinct from another signifier.

Because of this lack of signifieds, the chain of signifiersconstantly slides and shifts in an endless series, like actors in search of aplay. There is no anchor operating in the unconscious, nothing that ultimatelygives meaning or stability to the system. The chain of signifiers isconstantly in play, in Derrida's sense; there is no point at which a definitivemeaning can crystallize. Rather, one signifier only leads to anothersignifier, and never to a signified (Lacan, 1966).

Lacan posited this as the nature of unconscious content: continuallycirculating chains of signifiers, with no anchor or center. This is Lacan'slinguistic translation of Freud's depiction of the unconscious as a chaoticrealm of shifting drives and desires. While Freud attempted to bring thosechaotic drives and desires into consciousness so they could be understood and mademanageable, Lacan theorized that becoming an adult, a "self," is theprocess of trying to halt the chain of signifiers so that stable meaning, includingthe meaning of "I", becomes possible. According to Lacan, however,this possibility is an illusion, an image created by a misperception of therelation between body and self

Even sexual identity is determined by the subject's relation to thesignifier, not by some innate, biological predisposition. For Lacan, whatFreud described as the oedipal phase is actually a moment in which theindividual faces the option of accepting or rejecting the signifier in theplace of the object or the imaginary other. Although Freud called thissignifier the phallus, its primary characteristic is not its status as a biologicalorgan that one may or may not possess. Rather, this primordial signifierpossesses the fundamental property of being separable from the object itrepresents. Freud identified this possibility as "castration," butLacan claimed that it is simply the functional principle that enables thesignifier to appear as such. Sexuality and, more generally, personal identityis thus not biologically determined but instead constructed through one'srelation to the symbolic order.

Most of Lacan's work from this period traces the connections betweenspecific properties of the signifier and their effects in human experience. Heclaimed that the entire structure of intersubjective relations is determinednot by the individuals involved but by the way those individuals model on amoment of the signifying chain which traverses them. Because the signifier isautonomous from the signified, the link between them, ordinarily considered toconstitute meaning, is an effect of the signifier itself and its relation to othersignifiers in the signifying chain.

Lacan described the way that illusory meaning comes about byreferencing Roman Jakobson's distinction between two poles of language,metaphor and metonymy. Lacan contended that these functions account for thesense of meaning although there is a barrier between the signifier and thesignified, or between the symbolic and the real. According to Lacan, meaningnever "consists" in language, it "insists" in the chain ofsignifiers as one supplants the other metonymically. Language seems to"mean" in the usual sense due to displaced signifiers that functionas the signified in Saussure's model. Subsequent signifiers merely refer backto earlier ones, and it is this retrospective "reference" thatsustains the effect of reference in the absence of a referent or anactual signified. Lacan described this effect as the "creativespark" of metaphor (Beneveuto & Kennedy, 1986). It is, for Lacan, theseat of the subjective.

Traditionally, subjectivity has been understood as a juncture ofwords with objects, situated on the bar between the signifier and the signifiedor the border between language and the world. That border, Lacan argued, is withinthe unconscious. Read through Saussure's influence and Lacan's emphasis on theautonomy of the signifier, Freud's discovery of the unconscious established an 'absence'in the subject's relation to the object and to the self.

This absence or lack, termed the 'other', can be thought of as theobject of desire. Lacan contended that the concept of the unconscious revealsa subject constituted in relation to an Other it cannot know and orientedtoward an object that it can never possess. As discussed in the Mirror Stage,this splitting is brought about by the subject's entry into the symbolic,supplanting the imaginary unity derived through identification with the other.That identification is replaced by a more complex relation to the symbolicOther. Introduced in the Discourse of Rome" the Other designates a numberof concepts for Lacan; e.g., death, the symbolic father, the role of theanalyst, the unconscious.

For Lacan, Freud's angry father becomes the Name-of-the-Father orthe Law-of-the-Father. Submission to the rules of language itself; i.e., theLaw of the Father, is required to enter into the Symbolic order. To become aspeaking subject, you have to be subjected to, you have to obey, the laws andrules of language. Lacan designated the structure of language, and its rules,as specifically paternal, calling the rules of language the Law-of-the-Fatherin order to link the entry into the Symbolic, the structure of language, toFreud's notion of the oedipus and castration complexes.

The Other is posited as the center of the system, that which governsthe structure's shape and the manner in which all the elements in the systemcan move and relate. The term Phallus also is used to designate the Other, emphasizingthe patriarchal nature of the Symbolic order. The Phallus limits the play ofelements and stabilizes the structure. It anchors the chains of signifiers withthe result that signifiers can have stable meaning. Because the Phallus is thecenter of the Symbolic order, of language, that the term "I"designates the idea of the self. Lacan has referred to this anchoring effectas a 'point de capiton' or quilting point ( Stavrakakis, 1999).

This quilting point has particular significance for the usefulapplication of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to social domains. Without it,the practitioner is left with a postmodern concept of an endlessly fluid chainof signifiers, signifying nothing in terms of a relatively stable identity ormeaning. For Lacan, the slipping chain is halted by the prominent roleattributed to certain signifiers in fixing the meaning of whole chains ofsignifiers. Lacan described this effect as everything radiating out from andbeing organized around this signifier, similar to these little lines of forcethat an upholstery button forms on the surface of material. It's the point ofconvergence that enables everything that happens in this discourse to besituated retroactively and retrospectively (Stavrakakis, 1999, p. 60). Thisis the point with which all concrete analyses of discourse in thepsychoanalytic and the social world must operate.


Lacan's great contribution to contemporary culture is his teachingabout rhetorical "performance" and "cognition," doing andknowing. The "revolutionary" dimension of Lacan's pedagogy forFelman (1987) is the dialogism of the performative and constative, how inpractice they undermine, deconstruct, and yet inform each other. Theinteractions of doing and undoing form the dynamic basis, Felman said, ofpsychoanalysis's "ineradicable newness" (12), its evergreen vitalityand unceasing "revolutionary" nature. Building on this insight,Lacan has shown experience, largely unconscious, to be structured like alanguage, since human behavior manifests the dialectical interaction ofconscious and unconscious experience, the double writing of that which is enactedbeyond what can ever be known at any one moment.

For example, Gallop (1987) pointed out that the psychoanalystlearns to listen not so much to her patient's main point as to odd marginalmoments, slips of the tongue, unintended disclosures. Freud formalized thispsychoanalytic method, but Lacan has generalized it into a way of receiving alldiscourse (p. 23).

Lacan was often and roundly criticized as a self-aggrandizingshowman, a sloppy theoretician, an intentionally inscrutable speaker andauthor, a postmodern, post-structural 'want to be', and a 'polygamouslyperverse' human. Many disciples justified his obtuse style of presenting ideasas an attempt to model his concepts within the instrument of his linguisticstyle. Others found his style to be sufficient reason for avoiding Lacan'swork altogether. In addition, his clinical practices, such as the abbreviatedsession, were frowned on by many traditionalists in the psychoanalyticcommunity.

However, Lacan's linguistic approach to the unconscious serves as animportant counter to the more-entrenched biological and neurologicalconstructs. His synthesis of Freudian theory with Saussurean semiologygenerated new conceptual tools for critical research and reading in the socialsphere. These tools allow a dynamic analysis of social process from theperspective of What is this doing? rather than What does this mean?


Beneveuto,B. & Kennedy, R. (1986). The Works of Jacques Lacan. London: FreeAssociation.

Clement,C. (1983). The Lives and Legends of Jacque Lacan; A. Goldhammer(trans). New York: Columbia University Press.

Elliott,A. (1992). Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition. Oxford:Blackwell.

Felman,S. (1987).  Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysisin Contemporary Culture.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gallop,J. (1987). Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lacan,J. (1966). Of structure as the inmixing of an otherness prerequisite to anysubject whatever. In R. Macksey & E. Donato (eds), The StructuralistControversy, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1970.

Laplanche,J. & Pontalis, J.B. (1983). The Language of Psychoanalysis; D.Nicholson Smith (trans.). London: Hogarth.

Stavrakakis,Y. (1999). Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge.