Jacques Lacan: Return to Freud

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Being a transitional figure, bridging Modernism and Postmodernism, Jacques Lacan was a complex and hybrid philosopher whose work is convoluted and complicated. As a Modernist, he favored models and structures, a methodology he inherited from both Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who worked from the dialectic, a triadic process. The combination of dyads and triads marks the efforts of Jacques Lacan who then layers the duos and trios in a series of strata. As a Postmodernist, Lacan was one of the earlier re-readers of Enlightenment ideas and did not hesitate to slice and dice and recombine ideas purloined from Modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Alexandre Kojeve, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et. al. Lacan used the works of all of these philosophers to re-interpret the books of Sigmund Freud. The one element that marks him off from his predecessors is Lacan’s use of language or appropriation of the linguistic theories of Saussure and the idea of “language games,” borrowed from Wittgenstein. The primary project of Jacques Lacan was to re-make Freudian theory by filtering it through the fulcrum of language.

In 1955 Jacques Lacan announced his famed Return to Freud, meaning that he had decided to take up the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as literature. As is clear by the date of is “announcement,” Lacan had read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s recently published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and had learned of Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.” Although Lacan had been working with Freudian theory and had even challenged the Freudian privileging of the ego, Wittgenstein gave him a new way to re-read Freud. Wittgenstein had used language games to demonstrate the difference between saying and showing and to search for the limits of “saying” or what could be said. These limits are reached when the question of defining “language” arises and any definition can only become another example, and never a definition, meaning that meaning is always deferred.

Lacan rediscovered the “essential Freud” through the early writings: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). These signature works are considered the canonical theories on the unconscious mind. Lacan referred to the Unconscious as the “Lost Object”, an object barred from the conscious. He was less interested in Freud’s archaeological project and more interested in the constitution of the individual and social beings and with the relation of the individual subject to the structure of language within the culture. The individual is formed/made/built in relation to the family and is integrated into the social matrix through the agency of language. Lacan asserted, <“I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words but that the unconscious is precisely structured.” “The meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud.”

The unconscious is structured like a language and functions in ways similar to language: sign, signifier, and signified. In giving agency to language in creating the human and by insisting on the primacy of language as generative of consciousness, Lacan expressed his opposition to the traditional notion of the Self as an independent or transcendent or an absolute entity in the world. The question is why language? Psychoanalysis has but one medium: the patient’s speech, and Freud taught his readers that “symptoms,” or uncontrolled manifestations of the unconscious, speak in and through words. Symptoms, like dreams, which are linguistic image based narratives, were constructed in phrases and sentences. Freud tried to use language to reach a source or an origin from which the primal pain was emanating, but Lacan insisted that origins can never be located. What is available to the observer is the capacity for symbolization, expressed as language.

The subject exists because of and through language. Because the human agent “knows” or “speaks” only through language, language is the determinant of intersubjectivity or consciousness. Given that the limits of language, not only is there no outside or no meta-language and also no access to the unconscious but there is also no ego without language. The ego or the conscious rational mind is the product of linguistic activity. In other words, the limits of the language and the limits of the consciousness are the same and inseparable. As Lacan expressed it,

…words are the only material of the unconscious…The subject does not exist prior to language, the subject comes into being through language…the concept…engenders the thing…the world of words…creates the world of things…

And as Lacan continued,

If I have said that language is what the unconscious is structured like, this is because language to begin with, does not exist. Language is what we try to know concerning the function of la langue.

Notice that Lacan used the term la langue or lalangue. This characteristic play with words is a nod to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who separated langue, or that which structured linguistics as it exists in the social collective, from parole or common speech acts. Scholars have debated the extent to which Saussure meant for the speaker to “possess” langue, but for him, langue was synchronic (based in structure), while parole was diachronic (based in time). According to Saussure, we communicate synchronically through the sign, the signifier, the signified, but Lacan added a third term, lalangue, or the language of the unconscious, which is the primal language heard by the infant from its mother. As Juan David Nasio wrote in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan,

Lalangue is something that one sucks, it is the maternal part of language that undergoes jouissance. Lalangue remains intimately linked to the body, and is thus eminently charged with meaning. Lalangue is the language of meaning, full of meaning.

Language operates in terms of connection or putting together and through substitution or alternative that are expressed in Freudian terms of “condensation” and “displacement.” Dreams are symbolic symbols that are condensed or combined from concepts that have been suppressed by the conscious mind. This displacement from the conscious to the unconscious forces metaphorical expression which is the stuff dreams are made of. Accordingly, language is not as much descriptive as it is symbolic. Linguistically, the Sign or the Letter is the material support, the Signifier or the Metaphor substitutes itself for the thing it represents, and the Signified—that which has been signified—or the Metonymy, is that which re-represents itself. The result of these processes of connection and substitution is a displacement of meaning along a chain of signification.

Lacan linked three terms: the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. The “Imaginary” was the earliest of these concepts and refers to the world we “imagine” or bring into being, and for Lacan it is this order of expression that is the proper study of psychoanalysis. The Symbolic is that which is signified through language. Because humans must express themselves through symbolic means, the “Real” is forever inaccessible. Lacan’s concept of the “real” evolved over this career. In the 1930s, the “real” was pre-symbolic, unreachable and unknowable. Because the “real” is unknowable and escapes language the real does not exist. If there is a “real,” then a Symbolic Real has priority over that raw reality as it exists before language, but paradoxically this “real” also limits that which can be imagined and thus restrains what can be symbolized.

Rather than revealing the unknowable “real,” the Symbolic Real hides and veils the unsymbolized and unsymbolizable real through acts of symbolization. Lacan expressed this strange unbridgeable divide through the algorithm “S/s.” S/s indicates that there is a split or a “bar” between the Symbolized and the un/symbolizable. There can be no true coincidence or semblance between the theoretical entities of the Real and the Symbolic. The line or forward slash between the S(ymbolic Real) and the (un)s(ymbolized real) is the essential fact of human existence. The bar is an imaginary filter between the real and the human mind: the real that is perceived but that can never be expressed except through the mediative process of language. Thus the human condition is constituted through language. Language is the Symbolic Real, which has two orders of reference: the Real, which cannot be articulated and Language, which functions metaphorically.

The slash or slanted line between S and s is significant and needs further discussion. By the 1960s, Lacan associated the real (that which cannot speak its name) with trauma or an original wound. Taking a word from Aristotle, tuché, meaning “cause,” Lacan transforms the word to mean an “the encounter with the real.” But because this encounter with the real must always be “missed,” not because it did not happen but because it cannot be internalized, this unassimilable event is re-written as trauma. There is a connection between language and trauma, for we enter into language through trauma. The birth of a human subject into language produces a disjunction (a bar, a slash) between the lived experience and the sign, which replaces reality. Language should be thought of as a reflection upon experience and yet is always divergent from experience. In other words, language is not reflective and can never be reflective–as in a reflection of reality—but can only reflect or think upon the experience. The word upon indicates a displacement: language is not a mirror which reflects; the language is a mechanism which allows thinking about.

We come into consciousness through language. We are ushered into society through language. The bar/slash between the S and the s is also the veil or the “splitting” that occurs when the unseparated (from the mother) infant is separated (becomes separate) from its mother and is initiated into society through language. The beginning of humanity is the end of the infant’s certainty of fusion and wholeness, the jouissance of bodily contact with the mother. S/he is forever barred and forever split from this undifferentiated fusion through the workings of symbolic (unreal) language. The result of this act of separation, this slash or division, is a trauma that splits the child off and sends him or her hurling alone into society. The map or topography of the resulting separation of the conscious from the unconscious is the alienation of the subject from itself.

The S/s separation of Lacan also divides the signified from the signifier and puts the Signifier over the signified and separates the sign from meaning and installs a barrier between subject and object. The word is subordinated to the concept, just as the signified is subordinated to the signifier. The counter-intuitive inversion was borrowed from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Hegel’s assertion that the Master was ultimately dependent upon the Slave for recognition. In the same way, it seems that the Conscious mind is the Master but it is the Unconscious mind that represses the conscious mind, and the thesis, so to speak, is made slave by the antithesis: U/c. The bar cites the presence of an inherent and inverted repression.

Reiterating but re-expressing the Freudian model of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, the Lacanian bar is also a gap between the signifier and the signified or a “topological substratum.” As Lacan explained why the Signified is ascendent,

…the signifying chain gives an approximate idea” rings of a necklace that is a rung in another necklace made of rings. Such are the structural conditions that define grammar as the order of constitutive encrohments of the signifier up to the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal locution.

The appearance of language is simultaneous with the primal repression, which produces the unconscious. The notion that the human being must be repressed in order to be socialized is a Freudian idea, but Lacan relocates the repression to the trauma of the initiation into the symbolic (language). For Freud, repression was divided into two stages: the primary or primal repression (Urverdrängung) which becomes a fixation that draws secondary repressions to it because the two forces cooperate. In 1961, Lacan interpreters Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire explained that primal repression was connected to metaphor in language. In primal language, the signifiers float without a structural network, as functions of “pure difference.” Secondary repression occurs when the signifier is not only doubled by the metaphor but is also fixed in the framework of signification,i.e., the metaphor signifies (something). As a result of these stages of repressions (two or three stages—Laplanche and Leclaire differ), consciousness of the self is now possible due to the ability of the subject to contrast the Self to Others (“I-thou” or the “me-non-me”) that defines subjects by mutual opposition or mutual dependency.

The process of repression/s are determined by the two “Narcissisms” or reflections upon the self which are experienced by the subject and creates the tension of attraction and repulsion. And yet the self and its Narcissistic development is dependent upon the formation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Because the Imaginary overlays the primal and perceptual real, the Imaginary structures a Real of cognition and this Imaginary produces knowledge. Just as the signifier is doubled by the metaphor, “reality” doubles and pairs, meaning that one object (the real) is obliterated by another (the imaginary) through the faculty of creation. Each term—real, imaginary—becomes its opposite and each is lost in the play of endless reflection. Just as the signifier is finally caught in the mesh of meaning, Language and the Symbolic arrest this play of reflections.

Lacan’s point de capition (upholstery button) is the point of convergence or stoppage or fixation where the signifier stops/halts the endless movement of signification. In other words, the Imaginary is stabilized by the subject’s (traumatic) acceptance of the Symbolic register. Finally, at the end of this endless process, the Symbolic overlays or veils or covers the Imaginary and restructures cognition. The Symbolic is characterized by mediation, or the filtering of the perceptual through linguistics, so that Language becomes dominant, but there is price for the triumph. Human alienation is the cost because the subject is constituted in the very gap or bar or split between the signifier and the signified. Constructed by this uneasy and alien place, the space of the gap, the subject and the language exist in this system of differences.

According to Freud and Lacan, the individual is inaugurated into society or become socialized through a series of traumatic acts. For Lacan this suffering is the price paid for the purchase of the pride of language. True to his method of modeling structures in opposites or in triads, Lacan reconsidered Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) distinction between “speech” and “talk” with his elaboration of “empty speech” and “full speech.” Empty speech implies a subject dispossessed and alienated and belongs to the imaginary autonomy of the ego. There is a debility at the heart of human speech–the emptiness. While full speech is incapable of being no more or less “true” (there is no truth) than empty speech; full speech is merely more functional or performative and uses language in a more transformative manner. Lacan used a comment by Stéphane Mallarmé to illustrate his point. Mallarmé referred to language as a coin with images on both sides. The coin is exchanged even though the images are not noticed and the image is “effaced” or not seen and is passed from hand to hand “in silence” or without speech. According to Lacan, the subject must cross over the “wall of language” to speak in order to say nothing. Lacanian “full speech,” “commits,” “acts,” “institutes,” and “transforms” as a “speech act.”

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