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Linguistic Structure of the Unconscious by Lacan

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3899 words Published: 19th Jun 2018

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Lacan’s View of the Linguistic Structure of the Unconscious and Implications for the Relevance of Psychoanalysis to the Social World

Jacques Lacan has been called the most influential psychoanalyst since Freud. The impact of his work, both as a theory of the unconscious and as a repertoire of clinical practices, is reflected in the use of Lacanian methods by over half of psychoanalysts worldwide. Lacanian concepts and constructs also are thriving outside the consulting room, in the studies of literature and film, in feminist studies and legal studies, international relations and social policy.

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But what does psychoanalysis have to do with the social world? Historians, social and political scientists have contested a role for psychoanalysis in their respective social domains. There is fear that psychological reduction is inevitably results, lowering the ‘objective’ social sphere to the subjective level of a ‘culture on a couch’. However, the theory and practice of psychoanalysis need not be atomistic. Freud regarded the study of institutions, languages, literature and art as a necessary prerequisite to successfully comprehending the analytic experience. Like Freud, and in his project of returning to Freud, Jacques Lacan studied and borrowed from a range of disparate fields, including philosophy, structuralist anthropology, literature, music, topography and semiology/linguistics. He agreed with Freudon the legitimacy of social analysis inspired from a psychoanalytic perspective. In A Theoretical Introduction to the Functions of Psychoanalysis in Criminology (1950), Lacan expressed his position as follows:

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

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

In this vein, Feher-Gurewich contended that Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach is founded on premises that are in sharp contrast to the ones which have led to the failure of an alliance between psychoanalysis and social theory (Stavrakakis, 1999, p. 14).

One set of these premises is the topic of this discussion. The following is an attempt to explain Lacan’s claim that the unconscious is structured like a language and to discuss the bearing this claim has on the relevance of psychoanalysis to the social world.

First, a brief overview of Lacan’s career, or ‘project,’ may assist in supporting this analysis.

Overview of Lacan’s Project

Although many perceive his theoretical works as impenetrable or as an incoherent jumble, there are common threads throughout. Lacan consistently viewed his mission to be a return to Freud. The keynote for this return was his 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 case studies, Lacan began to focus on the emergence of the sense of self, the function of the I. He termed this emergence the Mirror Stage in the development of a child’s sense of self during the first two years of life. Drawing upon revelations from his own psychoanalytic experience, together with the work of psychologists such as Henri Wallon, Charlotte Bühler, and Otto Rank, Lacan posited that the child’s emergent sense of self is formed upon entry into language, the realm of the symbolic, and always in reference to some “other. That other could be the child’s own image in a mirror, the mother or any number of other objects with which the child associated self via Freud’s mechanism of narcissistic identification.

The mirror stage is the origin of a fundamental alienation or split in the individual’s sense of self. The speaking subject (I) becomes de-centered from the ideal ego (me). Because self is oriented toward an ‘other’ who is perceived as ideal/omnipotent, and thus as a potential rival to the self, the ego that emerges from this stage is characterized by a hostility that threatens its very existence. Lacan concluded that human identity is formed only within this intersubjective context in which alienation and aggressivity characterize the natural state. Rather than being the first step toward the formation of a healthy and stable ego, his proposal that méconnaissance, or misperception, is central to the ego formation flew in the face of a basic construct of ego psychology, that the ego is the origin and basis of psychic stability. In 1953, Lacan broke with the dominant faction of ego psychologists and 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, Lacan presented a paper which quickly became known as the manifesto of the new society. He argued that speech and, more generally, language were central to psychoanalytic practice and to any theoretical conclusions that might be extrapolated from it. He drew upon and adapted the semiologic principles of Ferdinand de Saussure and the philosophical traditions of Hegel for his theoretical vocabulary. It is during this time that Lacan’s public focus shifted clearly from 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 dynamic interaction with the imaginary.

Lacan’s acerbic characterization of the ego as the seat of neuros is rather than the source of psychic integration and his emphasis on the symbolic organization of the human psyche opened new territory for psychoanalytic theory. Lacan credited Freud with the concept and blamed his ego-psychologist followers for obscuring the point.


The charge that psychoanalysts had abandoned the founding texts of their profession exacerbated tensions between the ego psychology and the SFP until Lacan left the group in 1963 to form another organization, the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP). Lacan continued his close readings of Freud’s texts, but he now began to introduce a number of terms and concepts not found in Freud’s own work. By the time his selected essays appeared 1966, his seminars were standing-room-only. Many in the crowd associated him with structuralists such as Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault. As with other members of this group, Lacan was often criticized for the difficulty of his style. Within the EFP itself, many of the practicing analysts were concerned about what they perceived as the increasingly theoretical and academic emphasis of Lacan’s work. During this stage of his career, Lacan began work toward a “meta-theory” of psychoanalysis, constructing ideas about Lacanian ideas. His construct of the three registers expanded to three-plus dimensions. He attempted to recast his earlier insights in the more precise language of mathematics, employing topological figures, such as the Klein bottle and Borromean knot, to illustrate and explore the relationship among his theoretical constructs. However, many of Lacan’s followers criticized this approach, complaining that his arguments were increasingly incomprehensible and irrelevant to clinical practice. Lacan’s response was the dissolution the EFP and 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, Freud commented 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 is structured like a language, and that ‘it speaks’/ ca parle. A symptom, Lacan claimed, may be read as an embodied metaphor. As Freud had argued, what is at stake within a symptom is a repressed desire objectionable to the consciously accepted self-conception and values of the subject. This desire, if it is to gain satisfaction at all, accordingly needs to be expressed indirectly. For example, a residual infantile desire to masturbate may find satisfaction indirectly in a compulsive ritual the subject feels compelled to repeat. Just as one might metaphorically describe one’s love as a rose, Lacan argues, here we have a repressed desire being metaphorically expressed in some apparently dissimilar bodily activity. Equally, drawing on certain moments within Freud’s papers On the Psychology of Love, Lacan argues that desire is structured as a metonymy. In metonymy, one designates a whole concept (e.g.: military force) 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 resources of 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 the subject cannot consciously avow.

While Freud is interested in investigating how the polymorphously perverse child forms an unconscious and a superego, and becomes a civilized adult, Lacan’s focus is on how the infant develops the illusion commonly termed as 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 self identified by the word “I.”

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

Lacan followed ideas laid out by Saussure, but adapted them to his use. He argued that Freud had understood the linguistic nature of human psychology but that he had simply lacked the Saussurean vocabulary necessary to articulate it. Saussure talked about the relationship between signifier and signified in the formation of a sign, and contended that language is structured by the negative relation among signs (i.e., the existence of a sign is dependent on its distinction from another sign). For Lacan, the contents of the unconscious form signifiers and these signifiers form a “signifying chain.” One signifier has meaning only if it is distinct from some other signifier. There are no ‘signifieds’ in Lacan’s model; there is nothing to which a signifier ultimately refers. If there were, then the meaning of any particular signifier would be relatively stable; there would be a relation of signification between signifier and signified, and that relation would yield meaning. Lacan posited that relations of signification do not exist in the unconscious; rather, there are only negative relations in which one signifier can exist only if it is distinct from another signifier.

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

Lacan posited this as the nature of unconscious content: continually circulating chains of signifiers, with no anchor or center. This is Lacan’s linguistic translation of Freud’s depiction of the unconscious as a chaotic realm of shifting drives and desires. While Freud attempted to bring those chaotic drives and desires into consciousness so they could be understood and made manageable, Lacan theorized that becoming an adult, a “self,” is the process of trying to halt the chain of signifiers so that stable meaning, including the meaning of “I”, becomes possible. According to Lacan, however, this possibility is an illusion, an image created by a misperception of the relation between body and self

Even sexual identity is determined by the subject’s relation to the signifier, not by some innate, biological predisposition. For Lacan, what Freud described as the oedipal phase is actually a moment in which the individual faces the option of accepting or rejecting the signifier in the place of the object or the imaginary other. Although Freud called this signifier the phallus, its primary characteristic is not its status as a biological organ that one may or may not possess. Rather, this primordial signifier possesses the fundamental property of being separable from the object it represents. Freud identified this possibility as “castration,” but Lacan claimed that it is simply the functional principle that enables the signifier to appear as such. Sexuality and, more generally, personal identity is thus not biologically determined but instead constructed through one’s relation to the symbolic order.

Most of Lacan’s work from this period traces the connections between specific properties of the signifier and their effects in human experience. He claimed that the entire structure of intersubjective relations is determined not by the individuals involved but by the way those individuals model on a moment of the signifying chain which traverses them. Because the signifier is autonomous from the signified, the link between them, ordinarily considered to constitute meaning, is an effect of the signifier itself and its relation to other signifiers in the signifying chain.

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Lacan described the way that illusory meaning comes about by referencing Roman Jakobson’s distinction between two poles of language, metaphor and metonymy. Lacan contended that these functions account for the sense of meaning although there is a barrier between the signifier and the signified, or between the symbolic and the real. According to Lacan, meaning never “consists” in language, it “insists” in the chain of signifiers as one supplants the other metonymically. Language seems to “mean” in the usual sense due to displaced signifiers that function as the signified in Saussure’s model. Subsequent signifiers merely refer back to earlier ones, and it is this retrospective “reference” that sustains the effect of reference in the absence of a referent or an actual signified. Lacan described this effect as the “creative spark” of metaphor (Beneveuto & Kennedy, 1986). It is, for Lacan, the seat of the subjective.

Traditionally, subjectivity has been understood as a juncture of words with objects, situated on the bar between the signifier and the signified or the border between language and the world. That border, Lacan argued, is within the unconscious. Read through Saussure’s influence and Lacan’s emphasis on the autonomy 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 the object of desire. Lacan contended that the concept of the unconscious reveals a subject constituted in relation to an Other it cannot know and oriented toward 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 symbolic Other. Introduced in the Discourse of Rome” the Other designates a number of concepts for Lacan; e.g., death, the symbolic father, the role of the analyst, the unconscious.

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

The Other is posited as the center of the system, that which governs the structure’s shape and the manner in which all the elements in the system can move and relate. The term Phallus also is used to designate the Other, emphasizing the patriarchal nature of the Symbolic order. The Phallus limits the play of elements and stabilizes the structure. It anchors the chains of signifiers with the result that signifiers can have stable meaning. Because the Phallus is the center of the Symbolic order, of language, that the term “I” designates the idea of the self. Lacan has referred to this anchoring effect as a ‘point de capiton‘ or quilting point ( Stavrakakis, 1999).

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


Lacan’s great contribution to contemporary culture is his teaching about rhetorical “performance” and “cognition,” doing and knowing. The “revolutionary” dimension of Lacan’s pedagogy for Felman (1987) is the dialogism of the performative and constative, how in practice they undermine, deconstruct, and yet inform each other. The interactions of doing and undoing form the dynamic basis, Felman said, of psychoanalysis’s “ineradicable newness” (12), its evergreen vitality and unceasing “revolutionary” nature. Building on this insight, Lacan has shown experience, largely unconscious, to be structured like a language, since human behavior manifests the dialectical interaction of conscious and unconscious experience, the double writing of that which is enacted beyond what can ever be known at any one moment.

For example, Gallop (1987) pointed out that the psychoanalyst learns to listen not so much to her patient’s main point as to odd marginal moments, slips of the tongue, unintended disclosures. Freud formalized this psychoanalytic method, but Lacan has generalized it into a way of receiving all discourse (p. 23).

Lacan was often and roundly criticized as a self-aggrandizing showman, a sloppy theoretician, an intentionally inscrutable speaker and author, a postmodern, post-structural ‘want to be’, and a ‘polygamously perverse’ human. Many disciples justified his obtuse style of presenting ideas as an attempt to model his concepts within the instrument of his linguistic style. Others found his style to be sufficient reason for avoiding Lacan’s work altogether. In addition, his clinical practices, such as the abbreviated session, were frowned on by many traditionalists in the psychoanalytic community.

However, Lacan’s linguistic approach to the unconscious serves as an important counter to the more-entrenched biological and neurological constructs. His synthesis of Freudian theory with Saussurean semiology generated new conceptual tools for critical research and reading in the social sphere. These tools allow a dynamic analysis of social process from the perspective of What is this doing? rather than What does this mean?


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

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: Psychoanalysis in 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 Structuralist Controversy, 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.


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