1 September 2008

Lacan’s Inverted Structuralism

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:40 pm

For Saussure, a language is a structured system comprised of signs. A sign consists of two paired elements: the signified, or the concept associated with the sign; and the signifier, or the sound made when the sign is spoken. A sign has no meaning in and of itself; rather, it derives its meaning from all the other signs within the linguistic structure in which it participates. And the connection between any given signified and its signifier is arbitrary: the sound of the word is (with a few exceptions) unrelated to its meaning.

According to Chiesa (Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan, 2007, pp. 48-49), Lacan disrupts Saussurean structuralism in three ways. First, Lacan contends that the signifier “logically precedes and causes the signified.” I suppose technically this is the case: infants make all sorts of vocalizations before they understand what these sounds mean in their language. But this seems like a trivial point. In translation, mapping words from one language to another based on how they sound is a futile undertaking. E.g., the word spelled “pain” in French has nothing to do with its phonological analog in English. Translation operates by focusing on common meaning elements, or signifiers.

Second, Lacan observes that the same signifier can have more than one signified connected to it; i.e., the same word can have multiple meanings. The complement is true also of course: the same concept can be expressed by more than one word. But what interests Lacan is that the particular meaning to which a signifier is pointing can be discerned only through context. Only after the entire sentence has been spoken is it possible for the hearer to decide with relative certainty what the speaker intended to mean by each of the words included in that sentence. In other words, it’s the structure and sequence of signifiers that determines the meaning of an utterance.

Third, the structure of the sequence of signs determines the structure of the subject who speaks them. I think what Lacan means here is that neither the listener nor the speaker knows what the subject means by what she says until after she’s said it. The words are spoken, then the meanings are assigned to the word string, then the intentionality of meaning is assigned to the speaker. Because speech takes place in a social context, the subject who speaks is embedding herself in a Symbolic order the meaning of which is already determined by the Other. Therefore, in speaking to a listener, the subject is in effect being spoken by the Other to another. The subject becomes a structural artifact of language.

It’s in Lacan’s threefold divergence from Saussure that his famous epigram “the unconscious is structured like a language” is to be understood. According to Lacan, the unconscious is made up of signifiers loosely and multiply linked to each other. In speech the unconscious strings together sequences of signifiers and routes them through consciousness, attaching them to signifieds. Signs — signifier-signified pairs — never refer to actual things in the world; they refer only to each other. But it’s in the act of pairing signifier to signified that the subject-as-unconscious is assigned meaning as a self-conscious element within the Symbolic order. The subject in effect becomes a linguistic object.

Now I’m sure there’s a whole lot to be said for looking at subjects and language in this way, but to me the whole scheme strikes me as a kind of Ptolemaic cosmology replete with epicycles and wheels within wheels that add a seemingly sophisticated complexity to phenomena that could be greatly simplified. In this case, though, the simpler understanding is also the more intuitively obvious one. People experience things; people think about the things they experience; people come up with words to describe their experiences to others. It’s not just the signifiers that are unconscious; the signifieds are too — as Donnell Stern said, “all thought is unconscious.” When we speak we consciously and spontaneously call up from the unconscious a sequence of signs in which sound and meaning are already paired up. The hearer might not know which meaning to assign to the word string until it’s been fully spoken, but the speaker can know. The speaker probably doesn’t make a radical and sequential distinction between signifier and signified; i.e., she probably doesn’t formulate a complex thought and then assign the words to those thoughts as a separate conscious act. Thought and language are more closely linked than that: we think linguistically most of the time. And the thought-word sequence is assembled in real time: the barrier between unconscious and consciousness is permeable and flexible.



  1. In traditional psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious is a reservoir of past meaningful experience.

    But in Lacanian theory, the Unconscious is no ”reservoir”: it operates parallel to or simultaneously with the conscious. We’ve been here a million times before. I told you you need to think of the relation conscious-unconscious as of a Moebius strip.


    Comment by parodycenter — 2 September 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  2. It took me awhile to track down the quote, but I finally figured out that it comes from the link to my prior post on Stern. I was introducing the traditional reservoir theory in order to contrast it with Stern’s view, which is closer to Lacan’s loosely-linked linguistic structure. For both Lacan and Stern, the unconscious interacts simultaneously with consciousness, as you say. But for Stern the unconscious doesn’t consist only of signifiers, as it does with Lacan. Rather, the unconscious includes signifiers and signifieds — words and their conceptual referents. Though they’re linked together in the unconscious, the linkages are looser and less well structured than a language. Also, for Stern the unconscious also records traces of the subject’s contact with the Real. Consciousness attempts to formulate the unformulated by assembling the signifiers and signifieds in a way that describes these traces of the Real, as well as real-time contacts with the Real in ordinary experience. In other words, all the building blocks for assembling meaningful sentences that refer to the Real are floating around synchronically in the unconscious, and consciousness shapes this material into meaningful diachronic strings of language.

    For Lacan, it seems to me, consciousness is where the unconscious signifiers get attached to the signifieds of the Symbolic order. There is no direct reference to the Real either in consciousness or in the unconscious. This implies that the unconscious, which provides the linguistic source material for consciousness, acquires meaning only retroactively, after consciousness has (been) spoken by the Symbolic. So the unconscious too, even though it’s already structured “like” a language, itself becomes spoken “by” language as the person speaks meaningful sentences.

    So I think this Moebius strip idea is in play here, where the unconscious provides a flow of linguistic material to consciousness, which in turn flows back to the unconscious in the form of the Symbolic. What’s missing is the connection to the Real, either in the unconscious traces or in immediate subjective experience. I started writing a post about Chiesa’s description of the Lacanian Real earlier today, but my computer locked up and it disappeared. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 September 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  3. Due to my upset over the recent financial crisis I don’t have the opportunity to delve into this a lot further, but keep it hanging in the margins because it’s certainly an interesting question.

    Dr. Field removed me from the blawgroll in a highly suspect move which makes me doubt the doctor’s good intentions. I asked why and am anxiously awaiting an answer.

    K-punk articulates what bothered me about Pixar’s lecture: Balda was saying all the right things about the way animation should function, but the fact is Pixar themselves ruined the good functioning of animation by imposing an uniform representational code as well as the 3D technique (which has the tendency to appropriate and overtake all other techniques). In this way they practically fucked up the animation market so that more independent-minded studios don’t even stand a chance. In this context the ”avant-gardism” of Wall-E turns against itself in the end: it only proves, as K-punk notes, that the market is able to devour anything and churn it out in commodified form – in other words the film does to avant-gardism exactly what Wall-E does to trash.


    Comment by parodycenter — 3 September 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  4. Would you, on the whole, have felt pleased or embarrassed if you had worked for Pixar and been part of the Animation team for Wall-E? I’m wondering about compromise between artistic truth and commercial demands for profit, and where you might draw the line. (I hope to have a final installment on Chiesa’s book for tomorrow.)


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  5. The animation, as a process, is fairly pure – and it’s a very technical thing as well, because you’re working in the service of the director’s vision. In this way I would not mind working there at all but would to the contrary appreciate the overabundance of equipment and the drawing classes which they give for free. But to script, conceptualize or direct something like Wall-E would probably get me to foam after a while and I’d get fired. The problem however is I do not give a tuppence for 3D, my expression is in the drawing, so I don’t even know what exactly I’d be doing at Pixar – maybe character design. Speaking of all this, I bumped into this tremendous talent from Breda, Holland, where they have a ”proper” animation academy in that they treat animation as a poetic medium. There is SO MUCH MORE in five minutes of this than in the complete Pixar opus, and I think you’ll quickly know what I mean



    Comment by parodycenter — 3 September 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  6. …especially ”volgens de vogels” (according to the birds)


    Comment by parodycenter — 3 September 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  7. Stern (from your post on all thought is unconscious):

    We have no choice but to wait for what the following moment will reveal. Quite literally, we do not know what we will think next. Thoughts, images, and feelings come to us; they arrive; one feels like a conduit. We are used to the notion that ideas simply arrive in the mind of the genius. The madman, too. But the idea that everyone thinks this way is less familiar… The “unconscious thought” revealed in artistic inspiration and creative dreams is not as unusual or mysterious as it seems. These events are best understood as particularly graphic and dramatic instances of a process that occurs with regularity, and in waking hours as often as in sleep. All thought, in this sense, is unconscious thought.

    “Think before you speak” is the typical language we hear from our fathers, no?

    We can tame our language….we can “choose your words carefully.” We can prepare language to satisfy and conform to the expectations and obligations of the Other. Or, conversely, we can choose and prepare our language so as to manipulate the Other. This second thought occurs to me as I watch the political conventions this year. Do you realize that the same language (“We need to change Washington….no more business as usual”) was used by George W. in 2000 with absolutely no results. And now, in the current election, both parties are making this bullshit rhetoric part of the campaign….only….no-one seems to realize that it’s bullshit: carefully prepared language crafted for the purpose of manipulating the masses.

    Would you not agree that those who can prepare language for manipulation purposes are typically the most “successful” in society???

    My line of thought on manipulation goes to the third divergence that you mentioned above:

    Third, the structure of the sequence of signs determines the structure of the subject who speaks them. I think what Lacan means here is that neither the listener nor the speaker knows what the subject means by what she says until after she’s said it. The words are spoken, then the meanings are assigned to the word string, then the intentionality of meaning is assigned to the speaker. Because speech takes place in a social context, the subject who speaks is embedding herself in a Symbolic order the meaning of which is already determined by the Other. Therefore, in speaking to a listener, the subject is in effect being spoken by the Other to another. The subject becomes a structural artifact of language.

    Those who are masters of linguistic manipulation seem to have the ability to best understand the ramifications of “embedding” themselves in a “Symbolic order.” An artist may attempt to discover some “originality” or “purity” from within, but the most successful politician understands that such pursuits are superfluous: the real power comes from manipulation. And by
    “politician,” I mean more than just governmental politics. This would also apply to any of those who create mass media for sake of manipulation and personal profit: making music, movies, writing, etc. for the purpose of mass appeal. Not that such pursuits are “evil” or “wrong” in and of themselves; but it’s just interesting to me how different the approaches are between the “pure artist” who looks for something original within (which may, after all, just be an absurd undertaking) and those who produce art or language that can move people to shell out their money or cast their votes in a particular direction.

    Just a few “random” thoughts here!


    Comment by Erdman — 3 September 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  8. Yes, PC, I can see how both the style of drawing and the way of telling a story visually resonates with your animation. Volgen de vogels really expands the “window” vertically and depthwise in surprising ways. I like how the birds recede into nothingness as the go deeper into the window.

    Erdman I have to get some sleep before I interact with your thoughtful remarks.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  9. This use-value of language-as-marketing is an interesting phenomenon, Erdman. For Lacan, using language is an immediate consequence of symbolic castration, by which the individual is cut off from the Real in order to occupy a place in society. My place in the Symbolic order is defined not by who I am in myself, but by my assigned place relative to everyone else in the social structure. So in the Symbolic my identity is always ascribed by and defined with reference to the Other. As a result of Symbolic castration the self always experiences a sense of loss, which is the lost connection with the Real that contributed to the pre-Symbolic Image of oneself as a whole and complete thing. That which is missing becomes that obscure object of desire, le petit objet a. But it can’t be a Real object, because it’s just that which symbolizes that which is always-already missing in the self — hence object a can change over time as that which symbolizes the missing part of oneself moves around according to that which captures the self’s desire for completeness.

    Because objet a derives its meaning from the Symbolic, it should be possible to attract someone’s desire to a person or thing as having whatever it takes to be regarded as le petit objet a. Marketing language is a Symbolic manipulation which intentionally expresses the speaker’s desire to draw the desire of the other, to promise completion of the other by filling the other’s lack. What I think distinguishes a marketing expert from a hysteric, who seeks to become complete by being what the Other desires, by being le petit objet a for the Other, is the conscious intentionality. The writer and performer of an advertisement are sending the message of desiring to be desired, but the message disguises the advertiser’s own explicit desire, which is to acquire the other’s money. So it’s a desire for attaining the other’s objet a (money) disguised as the desire to provide the other’s objet a. I suppose one could regard this as a fair exchange of one symbolic object of completion for another, but the advertiser doesn’t want fair exchange: it wants to make a profit. Marketing language imbues the commodity with Symbolic fetish value over and above its use or exchange value, which the supplier is willing to part with for a little extra money extracted from the buyer. (Now we’re drifting into Marxist language, but I think it makes sense.)

    So in politics, a party can turn a performer into a political candidate who knows how to extend the lure of the other’s desire by Image: self-presentation, body language, vocal inflection, etc. A speechwriter can give this performer a message to speak that conveys this lure Symbolically through conscious choice of language. Through this merger of Imaginary and Symbolic the political party can embody someone who desires the desire of the other, who will be whatever it takes to complete the other’s lack. But behind the words and image there is the desire of the party itself and what it wants from the other. What it wants isn’t so much the other’s money (though it’ll take that too), but rather the other’s power.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 September 2008 @ 7:50 am

  10. I just noticed a Yahoo News headline: “Biden Says palin family is off limits to critics.” Would you say that laying down this commandment will provoke the desire to break the law, and that the Dems are counting on it?


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 September 2008 @ 9:43 am

  11. As a side note….and this may seem like an odd question…..but when does the mirror stage occur if a child never sees himself in a mirror (or another similar reflection device)?


    Comment by Erdman — 4 September 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  12. A friend of mine in college a decade or so ago once said that he no longer made decisions of buying a product based solely on the product; rather, he would buy a product based also on how it advertised itself: a good commercial meant he would buy the product. Why? Because he felt motivated to support companies that entertained him.

    So, I don’t know that it is fair in the 21st century to suggest that the advertiser “disguises” their intentions for manipulation and making profits. A new exchange, of sorts, is at work in this era: consumers expect the bullshit; and, in fact, they are disappointed when there is no bullshit. The packaging is more important than the product; the symbol trumps the substance. This, incidentally, is why I am voting for Obama: he looks better on tv. My friends here in conservative Americana are appalled and in many cases they simply don’t believe me. But it isn’t what you do, it’s how you say it. It’s a new world; or rather, it’s a new worlds–with an “s”; plural. Leaders are measured by their ability to manipulate multi-media. It’s all about symbol and image.


    Comment by Erdman — 4 September 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  13. Erdman, you’re sounding more cynical all the time. Maybe it’s because you don’t place much faith in strictly human endeavor taking place in “the world.” I know you’re also fed up with the church too. Systemic change does seem pretty unlikely, I have to agree.

    If consumers expect the bullshit and like the packaging, why not just settle for that? I mean, at the point the advertisement is better than the product and the consumer recognizes it, then doesn’t the advertisement become the product? No need to buy the brand name goods; just watch the commercial.

    This mirror idea from Lacan doesn’t work in the developmental timeline, as I discussed in one of the prior posts. Dejan at some point said that Lacan made the mirror metaphorical: the child sees herself “reflected in her mother’s eye.” I.e., the child sees herself as whole and perfect through the gaze of the (m)Other. This I believe can happen: that without a visual image of the self to work with, the self comes to see itself through the eyes of the Other. But as I said in the post just prior to this one, this ability to see things through the other’s perspective is also the basis for acquiring language; i.e., for entering into Lacan’s Symbolic order. So it’s hard for me to recognize a significant difference between the Image and the Symbolic, since they both depend on the same social role-taking skill. Consequently, proposing a radical split in the self between the Imaginary and the Symbolic makes no sense, if they both grow up from the same source.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 September 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  14. Regarding this idea of recognizing your Ideal image reflected back to you in the gaze of your mother… It’s rather remarkable that usually the infant first learns to take the other’s perspective, with respect both to language acquisition and to self-recognition, through interacting with the mother. Presumably in primary narcissism the infant can’t distinguish itself from the mother — as if the breast were a loosely-attached part of the infant’s mouth, etc. One might expect that social role-taking — seeing the world from the other’s perspective — would be easier for the infant to accomplish first with someone who is more clearly other than is the mother.

    A couple of possibilities come to mind. On the one hand, the trauma of separation from the mother, no matter how brief the duration, would make the infant want to re-establish the attachment. Vocalization is one means of achieving this even in the pre-linguistic phase: the baby cries, and the mother returns. Language refines this attention-grabbing means of bridging the gap between self and (m)other. On the other hand, the intimate bond between infant and child may constitute the characteristic way in which the human species operates: not as isolated monads connecting across distances through gazes, speech, etc. but as nodes in an interpersonal array or field. The pre-verbal infant self is always already defined in terms of its relationship with others; language is a more sophisticated medium in which this innate inter-relatedness can be sustained and extended.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 September 2008 @ 8:49 am

  15. K: If consumers expect the bullshit and like the packaging, why not just settle for that? I mean, at the point the advertisement is better than the product and the consumer recognizes it, then doesn’t the advertisement become the product? No need to buy the brand name goods; just watch the commercial.

    Kind of a Baudrillardian line of thinking, eh? I think it is true, though. “Disney Land exists to convince us that the rest of our lives are real”…..that kind of idea….it’s like, cool, if the “sound and fury” signifies nothing, that’s okay b/c the sound and fury is pretty cool in its own right.

    I may sound cynical, but I’m not necessarily bitter. Perhaps a bit jaded, but mainly I try to approach things as a philosopher in order to observe and comment on our current situation. I mean, it really is interesting how philosophy has shifted to a study of language, and at the same time, our opportunities to communicate with each other have multiplied so much. And what we mean by “language” now has to include our communication via images and not merely writing, isolated from images and sound.


    Comment by Erdman — 5 September 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  16. This is why more and more commodities are themselves images, without any pretense of a solid substance behind the image. Movies, TV, and porn are the best examples. And if we buy stuff to enhance our own image in the other’s gaze, then even substantive stuff is bought for its Imaginary value.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 September 2008 @ 4:07 pm

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