Because one of our EPIS seminar groups is reading Lacan for the school year 2012-13, from time to time we will post short articles or ideas about his work. [The brief article that follows is a version of a segment of my latest publication, Essays on Phenomenology and the Self. For citations and the balance of the text, please refer to it.] Let us now consider Lacan. In order to begin to understand his architecture of subjectivity, we must first realize that he follows Freud by accepting that there is an unconscious element to the self. However, Lacan bases his theory of the unconscious on language and transforms Freud’s pronouncements about the family and the body into assertions about culture. For him, psychoanalytic theory becomes a study of the construction of the subject in language. Repressed unconscious desire becomes the search for meaning in language. The symbolic father of the Oedipal struggle becomes a set of power relations imbedded within language. Finally, sexual difference noticed through the penis becomes the basis for all difference in meaning. In this brief introduction to Lacan, I wish to focus on his metapsychology and to take a look at some of his basic assumptions so as to understand his own scientific positivism, especially relative to that of Freud’s.
Lacan believes that the unconscious can only be accessed though speech and writing. He is interested in Freud’s dream analysis and techniques of free association, and he argued that the unconscious was structured like a language. In his quest, Lacan appropriates Saussure’s linguistic theories in order to conceptualize the unconscious as part of an endless chain of unconscious meanings that we can find only in language in the spaces between conscious meanings. He modifies Saussure’s structural model of meaning by arguing that there is an endless signifying chain from the conscious construction of meaning down to the unconscious, which constantly reveals itself in language. A sign is a physical object that has meaning just like a word, and it has two parts. The first part is the signifier, which is the physical, tangible part of the sign, such as characters on paper or an object of some sort. The signified is the meaning that is attached to the signifier.
For Lacan, it is the interdependence of both the words and the gaps, such as hesitations, blunders, and sighs that endow the whole system with meaning. No signifier can signify independently of other signifiers; it is the differences between them that give the meaning. For example, “love” has a different meaning from “live.” Standing at the limit of the differentiations of meaning is material plenitude or totality, including psychosis and death. This is the realm of the “Real,” which we will discuss. Recall that Freud uses two concepts to interpret dreams, including displacement and condensation. Lacan transforms these Freudian terms into his own linguistic paradigm, labeling them as metaphor, which is the identification of one known with another known, and as metonymy, where a part stands in for a whole. He argues that these two concepts explain the connections between signifying chains of conscious meaning.
According to Lacan, subjectivity emerges from these strings of interconnecting meanings and structures in language. Personal identity arises from the way personal narratives are created within these meanings. This Lacanian subject is always inhabited by the “Other,” which is comprised of all others and other significations within the overall linguistic structure. The subject, or self, always carries around the Other with it and has no inherent substance, personality, or traits of its own; it is dependent upon the intersubjectivity embedded in language for its very existence. In contrast to the object relations theorists, the subject is not an empty container that gets filled up with objects, i.e., its relations with others. In fact, signifying processes are seen as a series of events, and the construction of personal identity takes place through these events. Further, our view of the world is always constrained by the pre-determined meanings that exist. The complete linguistic structure in which one lives is the universe from which one’s self can emerge; the danger is that we can never step outside these pre-determined meanings. They act as Kantian filters and mediate our experience of the world, others, and ourselves from our very foundation in being. Thus, we can only interpret reality in terms of the language that we use, the language that speaks us. Further, it is through our use of language in our search for knowledge that we live our repressed desires. In Lacan’s universe, sexuality is not the mere pursuit of bodily pleasure. In his structural theory, he eroticizes language by linking meaning with underlying bodily desires. Intersubjectivity is made possible by the emergence of repressed desire in language which propels us from one meaning to another. In fact, we achieve repression through language by driving our unconscious desires downward into the space between words, in our speech acts. A child’s discovery of the phallus based on sexual difference is the initial experience for understanding all forms of difference in meaning. Further, identity and language are created in order to attain mastery of the emotional loss of the mother. Language represents symbolic castration of the father, a castration and loss of total fulfillment each of us must recognize before one can become a human self. Yet, language at both the conscious and unconscious levels operates as the possibility of freedom, personal identity, and the attainment of truth because it offers an infinite range of interpretations of our experience.
Lacan rejects the object relations idea that our identity can ever be authentic or coherent. He asserts that our identifications only lead to a sense of identity, not an actual identity, but that it is always based on misrecognition. In addition to the Real, Lacan divides his structural theory into two other parts, including the Imaginary and the Symbolic. It is within the Imaginary and the Symbolic realms that we create ourselves. Using Freud’s idea of primary narcissism, Lacan asserts that when we are infants we initially exist in an undifferentiated ego mass with the mother. Eventually, within this morass of emotion, sensations, and drives, we begin to sense that we have a distinct self with definable boundaries. This is the realm of the Imaginary. Yet this identity is always based on an image of oneself that is reflected back from someone else, much like the reflection from a mirror. He calls this the mirror stage. The person we usually identify with at first is our mother, but although this sense of identity appears real to us it is not because it depends on something external. This early sense of identity comes when we feel, unconsciously, a coherent sense of self through the eyes of the other, even though otherwise our self is dissipated and dispersed. In this state, our self or ego is never our own because it depends solely on our identifications, including people, things, and ideas.
Lacan also argues that we establish another kind of identity, what he calls subjectivity (in translation). We acquire this new kind of identity in the Symbolic realm as we acquire language. Here, we think that the apparently fixed meanings in language give us a much more stable sense of identity, and we look for the truth of who we are in language. By believing that these relatively stable meanings can give us some coherence to our identity, we attach ourselves to the way we define ourselves linguistically. Yet, even in the realm of the Symbolic we do not gain the stable sense of identity that we want. The unconscious reappears in the spaces between words. There is always a gap between our unfulfilled wishes and the language we use to convey identity and desire. This means that for Lacan, phonetic relationships between words are more salient than semantic ones. They may reveal unconscious meanings that are different from the conscious ones.
Our belief that there are stabilized meanings always runs the risk of being de-stabilized by unconscious desire and early loss. There is always a gap between the conscious “I” that we construct and a deeper, unconscious sense of who we are. Lacan seizes upon this assumption and argues that our conscious identity, which we formulate through the use of the regular and conventional categories of language, is always false. The identity we create through language, in the Symbolic realm of consciousness and culture, is only another reflected identity without substance. For him, it is no different than the imaginary one we created in the mirror stage, in the Imaginary realm. So, there are two identities. There is the pre-verbal, bodily one that gets constructed in the mirror stage in the Imaginary realm; there is also the one that gets constructed in the social, cultural Symbolic realm. Lacan’s argument is that we psychologically invest in false images of ourselves in both the Imaginary and Symbolic realms. He believes that there is a fictional element in the construction of our identities from the ground up, and he utilizes Freud’s theory of narcissism and stress on language as a form of the mastery of early loss. Yet, a major distinction between the two concerns how they view the status of the ego. For Freud, the ego really is a substantial self that can develop from a primitive state of narcissism. In contrast, for Lacan the ego is always false because it is based on reflections in the Imaginary realm.
Lacan replaces Freud’s structural model of identity that includes the Id, the Ego, and the Superego with his own system that represents, not parts of one self-identity, but rather various intersubjective, structural orders. We can use these structural orders to analyze the construction of identity. Lacan replaces Freud’s concept of biological drive (instinct) with the process of searching for meaning and identity through language, a constant appeal to the Other through language in the hopes of locating the final truth about ourselves. We lose access to the mother’s body during the Oedipal crisis, which propels us into a constant search for this lost unity and self-completion in the Imaginary realm. We use linguistic substitutes in the Symbolic realm in the attempt to fill the emptiness caused by this lost unity, but it is an impossible search. Both Freud and Lacan believe that the fulfillment of our desires is an impossible task. For Lacan, symbolic castration by the father, which is represented by the constraints language puts on reality, sets limits to our desires that are created in the Imaginary by coercing us into culturally acceptable meanings and behavior. In language we find our subjectivity, but we will never find the ultimate meaning about who we are because language cuts us off from the object of our desire, which is the mother from which we lost unity. This object of our desire, the lost mother, exists in the realm of the Real, which is everything that lies beyond the symbolic process. This realm exists in both the mental and physical worlds and includes the ineffable, pre-Imaginary plenitude that we seek out with futility. This plenitude, the all, the lost unity, always lies out of reach of the Imaginary realm and the kind of subjectivity language seems to offer us in the Symbolic realm. The Real includes not only this impossible plenitude, but the materiality of objects, psychosis (where all of the symbolic order is rejected), and death, which is where the real triumphs over subjectivity and meaning. Yet, even though language cuts us off from the objects of our desire (mother and mother substitutes) it returns desire to us. It provides us with a new sense of identity as we move from one meaning to the next in a constant pursuit of correspondence between our constructed subjectivity and the lost plenitude. Language becomes the transformative site for the Oedipal crisis, standing in for the actual father. In fact, language becomes the Other and places itself between us and the objects of our desire, constantly de-stabilizing and moving these objects so that we never reach them. Desire for Lacan is futile. So, even though it is language that hollows the being of the Imaginary realm, it is also through language, through the pursuit of meaning, that we can articulate the fullness of the imaginary and the imagined plenitude.
Lacan makes a distinction between the imagined father (the actual father) and the symbolic father (paternal metaphor). According to Lacan, even in the absence of the father, the child experiences the paternal metaphor, the place of the father, as well as the Oedipal conflict, through language. The child is severed from its object of desire, the mother, through the intrusiveness of the representations of language. The loss of the mother is a hole that gets filled up through grammatical rules and laws of the construction of meaning. The rational categories of language represent the cutting off from or castration of the child from the imaginary realm. They also represent the transformation of the child’s need to be the phallus for the mother into an insatiable desire for knowledge and the truth about who one is. The difference between what we are and what we want to be is the foundation of the construction of knowledge and identity, in his system.
At the same time a child is subjected to the laws of language it also recognizes its gender, through sexual difference, by noticing the phallus. The symbolic father signifies this sexual difference through his association with the phallus, which is a sign of power and not the actual physical penis. This symbolizes sexual difference (the recognition of which blooms during the Oedipal phase) as well as the underlying difference between those that have and those that do not. The unconscious becomes a container for the loss of the mother, and the associated desire is incited by the recognition that the child (of either sex) cannot have the phallus the mother wants. The girl lacks the penis; the boy fears castration. Thus, the phallus symbolizes both desire and loss. Further, it signals to the child that having a viable identity can only come at the price of the loss of the mother and that being human can only come about as the consequence of the division into consciousness and the unconscious.
Thus, the child recognizes that identities that are not fused with the mother in the Imaginary realm come into being through language, the Symbolic realm, as a result of the perception of sexual difference, which is represented by the phallus. The metaphor of the father, which is symbolized by the phallus, mandates that the child must take its place within a family that is defined by sexual difference. This allows the child to understand the concepts of the same and of difference. This difference that is represented by the phallus also teaches the child the concept of exclusion, because it cannot be its parents’ lover, as well as the concept of absence, because of the loss of the mother. The child thereby forms its identity based on an unconscious recognition of difference, exclusion, and absence. Lacan links the sexual world symbolized by the phallus with the symbolic world of language. As the child discovers sexual difference it also starts to acquire language. In its discovery of language the child unconsciously learns that the units of language only have meaning because they are different from other units and that signifiers, like the phallus, can represent things that are absent. Words stand in for objects and operate as metaphors. As the child unconsciously learns about the meaning of sexuality in the discovery of exclusion and difference it also learns about meanings based on difference and exclusion in language. Thus, it moves isomorphically from the bodily, pre-verbal realm into the cultural, linguistic realm of culture. Recognition of the metaphor of the father in the sexual realm prefigures the recognition of the linguistic and symbolic law.
When the metaphor of the father—the phallus—invades the child’s Imaginary relation with the mother, it creates the underlying logic and law of how we perceive the world within language and culture. This third term, i.e., the father, alienates the child from the mother simultaneously as it plants itself as pre-established meaning and law. As we have said, this process operates through the concept of difference, and sets limits to our search for meaning through the rules of logic and grammar. These limits create symbolic castration by cutting us off from what we desire while allowing us to enter into culture and to become subjects. Here, we can see Lacan’s linking of the psychosexual dimension with the dimension of culture. We unconsciously recognize the phallus as a sign that is a precursor to all signs in language. Language is comprised of empty chains of meanings that have arbitrary assignments so that we can live together in community. By entering into language from the foundation of the phallus, we become members of society with particular subjectivities.
Yet, Lacan recognizes that the power of the phallus is arbitrary and that there is always misrecognition of its perceived power (where females always signify a lack and boys have the chance to achieve the paternal metaphor). The meaning of the phallus is, therefore, spurious. Given that it is the first signifier on which all other symbolic meanings are based, what follows also involves misrecognition of the identity within language that we create in order to cover up our pain because of the loss of the mother. As a boy begins to recognize his sexual difference he also realizes, unconsciously, castration by the father. He experiences powerlessness. Likewise, as a girl recognizes her sexual identity, she must also accept that she, too, lacks what her mother wants, which includes cultural power and social identity. She constitutes herself negatively, as a lack, because she does not possess the phallus, and this is in addition to her losing the union with her mother’s body. Effects for both genders are repressed into their unconscious, according to Lacan.
Lacan asserts that at an unconscious level we understand the illusory nature of the construction of identity that is based on the spuriousness of the phallus. He bases this on Freud’s belief that the unconscious constantly subverts the intended meanings of language. Language forces us to abandon the Imaginary realm, but it is also the best source of identification that we have. Through the entry into language we achieve some kind of mastery over our original desire and loss of the loved object. We do this within the rational, objective, and coherent construction of meaning through that language even though this domain never quite satisfies our deep craving for unity. The seduction comes from the apparent stability of meaning within language. For Lacan, the strategy of attempting to ground the meaning of who we are through language, through the foundational metaphor of the phallus is futile, and engages us in an endless search for the meaning of who we are, for our completion. This metaphor functions as a pivotal structural concept that ostensibly regulates all other meanings. Yet, for Lacan, the phallus has no status in reality and our unconscious is aware of this more or less.
In Lacan’s conception of the unconscious, there is a constant concealment and distortion of meaning. In free association there is a constant dissolving and evaporation of meaning, as he says, “an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier.” That is, veiled unconscious meanings may be different from the conscious meanings lying at the surface. In terms of our identifications with various discourses of truth about who we are, we think that we achieve a coherent and unified identity. For Lacan, this occurs at the level of the Imaginary ego. Thus, when we believe in any stability and truth in language and knowledge, in actuality we make an imaginary identification with an image of ourselves that is reflected back to us from words whose meanings are as illusory as the identities we build on the basis of them. There is, therefore, a split in our identity between what we are and what we take ourselves to be. For example, when we make an assertion of the kind “I am going to do x,” the “I” that is the subject of the sentence is different from the “I” that is doing the enunciating. The “I” of the sentence covers up the “I” that is doing the speaking. We think that both are unified into one self, but they are not, for this conclusion is only in the Imaginary realm. There is no sign that can sum up my entire being and therefore it is impossible to represent. In fact, most of what I am can never be represented through language. For him, the subject is always constructed through the transforming of the Imaginary into the Symbolic, in which we transfer the experience of our senses into the world of the signifer, the world of which we speak.
Now let us explore Lacan’s metapsychology of the subject more carefully. Lacan attacks the idea of an essentialist subject that is transparent to itself and fully representable in theoretical discourse. It is this Cartesian subject which is also the subject of the humanist tradition that Lacan calls into question, just as Freud did. For Lacan, “it is nonetheless true that the philosophical cogito is at the centre of the mirage that renders modern man so sure of himself even in his uncertainties about himself.” Yet, this essentialist illusion, which reduces subjectivity to the conscious ego, reveals itself as a “myth of the unity of the personality, the myth of synthesis . . . all these types of organisation of the objective field constantly reveal cracks, tears and rents, negation of the facts and misrecognition of the most immediate experience.” As Lacan says it in the “Freudian thing,” as a result of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, the “very centre of the human being is no longer to be found at the place assigned to it by the humanist tradition.” Further, Lacan also opposes any project that asserts the autonomy of the essentialist subject, saying that “the discourse of freedom . . . [is] fundamentally biased and incomplete, inexpressible, fragmentary, differentiated, and profoundly delusional.” In fact, it is the very subversion of the subject as cogito that makes psychoanalysis possible.
For Lacan, the essence of man is not to be found in his conscious representation of himself. In fact, the subject is not a psychological substratum that can be reduced to its own representation. If, indeed, there is an essence in the Lacanian subject it is as a lack of essence. Nevertheless, his subject is different from the traditional metaphysical notion of the subject that is at the heart of the cogito. He takes Freud’s idea of Spaltung, or splitting, in reference to fetishism and psychosis and generalizes it as constitutive of all humans. Thus, the self is radically ex-centric to itself, heteronomous rather than autonomous, and more attached to the other than to itself. For Lacan, the ego is different from the subject. The ego is a sedimentation of idealized images that are internalized during the mirror stage, which we explained above. Yet, there is always a gap between the imaginary ego and the lived experience of one’s body, beginning in infancy. This gap implies that the ego is always an alien alter ego, “whereby the desiring human subject is constructed around a center that is the other insofar as he gives the subject his unity.”
Any imaginary unity based on the mirror stage is founded on an irreducible gap: “the human being has a special relation with its own image – a relation of gap, of alienating tension.” Unity in the Imaginary is a result of captivation, of a power relation between the infant and its image. This captivation, which anticipates unity and synthesis, does not eliminate the alienating character of its own foundation. Thus, we attempt to identify with anything outside ourselves in order to recover the lost unity. Yet, what seems to be ours always contains an element of difference and alienation. It is because the imaginary image of ourselves does not give us a stable identity that we seek it out in the symbolic register, through language. We are not speaking chronologically here, but logically, in that the symbolic always presupposed the imaginary and even pre-exists as a network of anticipated meanings even before birth. Thus, Lacan says that “while the image equally plays a capital role in our domain . . . this role is completely taken up and caught up within, remoulded and reanimated by, the symbolic order. The image is always more or less integrated into this order.” Whereas the ego is formed in the Imaginary, the subject emerges in the Symbolic. In fact, the subject takes its very structure from the signifier, which is constitutive for it. The subject of the signifier is the subject of lack, which carries power with it at its very foundation, i.e., the loss of certain possibilities, as well as its acceptance of the Symbolic realm. As it enters into the Symbolic it is constituted through power, and it is, therefore, subordinated to those to which it is attached.
The signifier is the very epicenter of the power that forms the subject and is based on the recognition of difference as well as a certain order. It is psychoanalysis that is the science of the signifier, as applied to the formation of subjectivity. Lacan argues that the symbolic function of psychoanalysis situates it in the “heart of the movement that is now establishing a new order of the sciences, with a new putting in question of anthropology.” Further, he asserts “this new order signifies nothing more than a return to a conception of true science whose claims have been inscribed in a tradition beginning with Plato’s Theaetetus. This conception has become degraded, as we know, in the positivist reversal which, by making the human sciences the crowning glory of the experimental sciences, in actual fact made them subordinate to experimental sciences.” Lacan continues his criticism of our modern conception of science by saying that “our physics is simply a mental fabrication whose instrument is the mathematical symbol [and that] experimental science is not so much defined by the quantity to which it is in fact applied, as by the measurement it introduces into the real.” Lacan, indeed, was wrestling with scientific methodology, and believed that linguistics could be the foundation for a new scientific order.
Lacan’s advice was to “read Saussure.” Furthermore, it was Freud himself who saw language as the foundation for his discourse of the unconscious. Lacan recognized this when he asserted that Freud’s goal had always been to explore an elaboration of the linguistic structure of dreams, that Freud had already recognized the primary status of language. Thus, Lacan’s goal was to reconstruct Freud in terms of modern linguistics. Even so, we must keep firmly in mind that Freud’s failure to develop beyond the paradigm of nineteenth century materialist science contributed to the failure of contemporary psychoanalytic theorists to get beyond the illusion of substance as they attempted to describe the development of the ego or self. What remains to be seen is whether Lacan overcomes the influence of the natural science model on psychology. In a future segment, I will make some observations about both Sartre and Lacan on the nature and architecture of subjectivity.