20 September 2007

The Self as Something Spoken

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:34 pm

If, as Lacan asserts, I am spoken by language, my desires channeled into categories predefined by the Other, is there an alternative realm where I am the speaker? What about the unconscious: is this where my True Self lives, hidden beneath the social and rational facade that dominates the linguistic realm? By tapping into my unconscious can I release this True Self? No: according to Lacan, the unconscious is even more foreign to me than consciousness. The unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan asserts, but it too is the language of the Other. So where does my self reside, and how do I find my voice? There is nowhere else, says Lacan: the self is an other. I have no real reason to believe that I know myself any better than anyone else knows me.

Through bodily gestures or verbal slips the unconscious may express desires that are unacceptable to the conscious Other and unassimilated into my speech. But these hidden desires may not be mine either: they may be desires imposed on me by my parents, say, which are then repressed and lost to conscious awareness. Says Lacan: the unconscious is full of other people’s talk, other people’s conversations, and other people’s goals, aspirations, and fantasies. My conscience for example: isn’t it often the “voice” of my parents, or my society, or my God that gives me the feeling that I’m about to do something unacceptable?

What we discover in Lacan is a self split between consciousness and the unconscious. I don’t create my own split self, or even control it; rather, I am the product of two different language systems that “speak” me. Fink says this at the beginning of Chapter Two of The Lacanian Subject:

Language functions. Language “lives” and “breathes,” independently of any human subject. Speaking beings, far from simply using language as a tool, are also used by language; they are the playthings of language, and are duped by language. Language has a life of its own. Language as Other brings with it rules, exceptions, expressions, and lexicons… language also operates independently, outside of our control. While we have the feeling, much of the time, of choosing our words, at times they are chosen for us. We may be unable to think and express something except in one very specific way… and words are occasionally blurted out that we do not have the impression of having chosen (far from it!). Certain words and expressions present themselves to us while we are speaking and writing — not always the ones we want — sometimes so persistently that we are virtually forced to speak or write them before being able to move on to others. A certain metaphor or image may come to mind without our having sought it out or in any way attempted to construct it and thrust itself upon us so forcibly that we can but reproduce it and only then try to tease out its meaning.

In this summary Fink makes it appear that “we,” upon whom language forces itself, are conscious agents competing with and “duped by” the unconscious. But that’s not how Lacan put it. For Lacan, even when we think we’re choosing our words they’re being chosen by the Other of consciousness. At the end of the second chapter Fink acknowledges this to be the case:

Now this way of conceptualizing the unconscious apparently leaves no room for a subject of any kind. There is a type of structure automatically and autonomously unfolding in/as the unconscious, and there is absolutely no need to postulate any kind of consiousness of this automatic movement (Lacan, in any case, breaks with the association, made by so many philosophers, of subjectivity and consciousness). The unconscious contains “indelible knowledge” which at the same time is “absolutely not subjectivized.” …This kind of knowledge has no subject, nor does it need one. And yet Lacan speaks constantly about the subject: the subject of the unconscious, of unconscious desire, the subject in its phantasmatic relation to object a, and so on. Where can the subject possibly fit it?

We’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the idea of self-as-other, spoken by language as an impersonal or superpersonal force, presents structuralism as a variation on idealism that looks a lot like Gnosticism, in which conscious language and unconscious language play the roles of competing demiurges fighting for dominance in the human collective and where individual selves are puppets controlled by these larger forces.



  1. It looks as though while language is a slippery customer, it’s nothing compared to a self that is expert at unsubstantiating itself whenever sought.


    Comment by samlcarr — 21 September 2007 @ 11:48 am

  2. I’ve got to agree with you, Sam. Somewhere Jeremiah says “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” “Desperate wickedness” is another name for “totally other.” I’m eager to see how Lacan talks himself into individual subjectivity given his full-throttled structuralism.

    I also think this self-unsubstantiation is happening at Sir Toby’s. I just tossed a couple more comments onto the string, the second one especially reflecting your observation here. I see you’re getting into some polytheism in Genesis 2, which I’ll have to get back to in a few hours.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 September 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  3. “I think my work here…is almost done…”



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 21 September 2007 @ 12:48 pm

  4. Obiously I find this “self-unsubstantiation” stuff very interesting. I recently saw The Assasination of Jesse James. The young kid who kills Jesse James is depicted as doing it just to get praise from others, and he ends up being hated. Jesse James is depicted as being guided by…I dunno…his own muse…and becomes a legend.

    As I discussed with Melody ad infinum over at Theos Project, though…I think its a question of who we imitate. Melody kept telling me that we are always going after an image. I understood that, and in response presented the thought that David says he wants to “be like the Holy ones of Israel.”

    Anyway…when I first read the words of William James in which he states that consciousness has no substance I had a strong urge to slap him…and was left grieving over his unavailability for slappage.

    Thankfully think I’m a little less angry now :)


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 26 September 2007 @ 10:27 pm

  5. “I think its a question of who we imitate.”

    I think that’s Lacan’s position about “being spoken” — that the self is mostly a projection of others’ expectations, desires, etc., beginning even before you’re born. You come into being from someone else’s desires, you’re shaped by parental rules and language and expectations, you imitate, you strive to be admired, etc. Is there anything left of the self other than these projected images and reflections? And does it matter? And do we ever really choose who you imitate, or are these models already chosen for us?


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 September 2007 @ 3:24 am

  6. I believe that my own self resides in me largely because of the perspective that is one of inside looking out. That perspective is what is deceptive for it does not consist of that which is generated internally but has a large component that i appear to have ‘borrowed’ from various others. Or, if there is no unified self, then I remain an uneasy hodgepodge of competing bits and pieces of various selves.


    Comment by samlcarr — 27 September 2007 @ 6:26 am

  7. Well said, Sam. The self seems to be an “emergent phenomenon” — if you try to reduce it to its components it disappears entirely, but it seems to be there nonetheless. Between genes and culture and social interactions and memories, it seems like the whole self is made up of things that have happened to you.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 September 2007 @ 7:07 am

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