Roland Barthes: “The Pleasure of the Text”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

In his 1997 history of Structuralism, History of Structuralism: Volume One: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966, François Dosse described Roland Barthes in a number of ways–“the Mother Figure of Structuralism,” “one of structuralism’s best barometers,” “a weather vane for structuralism,” “a mythic figure of structuralism.” Most importantly and all in his opening paragraph on Barthes, Dosse described Barthes in terms of “his flexibility with regard to theories” quick to embrace them, Barthes was just as quick to disengage from them.” As Dosse summed up, in his early career, Barthes was writing in the midst of a post-war crisis in literature which had produced no notable writer since Marcel Proust. He wanted to get beyond this impasse of alienated writing, from political writing to academic writing to the direction suggested by Stéphane Mallarmé–the silence of writing that is the break from the expected or that which was required by the establishment, a state termed “white writing.”

According to Barthes, after 1848 and the breakdown of the social order into fragmented classes, serious writing began to reflect upon writing as writing and to write was to contend–self-consciously or self-reflexively with literature itself. This new approach to language as writing or literature about literature can be traced from Gustave Flaubert to Mallarmé to Proust to the Surrealists to writers of the era of Barthes whom he championed, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus. At this last stage,the end of the fifties, according to Barthes, writing arrives at its end-point or what he called zero degree writing or “écriture blanche.” The “white” or neutral writer refuses commitment to either style of ideology and struggles against conventional literature, which Barthes called lisable or “readerly, in favor of writing that is scriptible or writerly, which questioned writing and literary conventions. As a critic who was “nauseated” by the old order, Barthes was particularly attentive to the new writes who, as artists, where also searching for a nouveau récit–a new way of writing–an new narration.

Barthes found an artist whose writings deserved his support, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) whose first two novels The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) had not exactly attracted critical acclaim. But when Barthes supported his third book, Jealousy (1957), the career of Robbe-Grillet was established, thanks to the reception of a voice very respected in literary circles. For Barthes, the novel was “objective” or a turn towards the object, but for Robbe-Grillet, the term became to rigid. That said, in 1956, he wrote an essay “For the New Novel” (which later named an entire literary movement) that stated,

Instead of this universe of “signification” (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanation or theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, freudian or metaphysical. In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..

In 1961, Robbe-Grillet–who got top billing–wrote one of the most innovative scripts for one of the most beautiful and innovative films of the late 20th century L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Directed by Alain Renais with costumes by Coco Chanel and cinematography by Sacha Vierny, the film became a celebrated part of the French Wave of experimental films. The droning opening monologue was a description of the ornate architecture of a Versailles-like mansion, a lexicon of words that gave the visualized objects “presence.” Although he was slightly older than the New Novelist or the New Wave filmmakers, Barthes, as a literary critic, was part of this struggle against the art-for-art’s sake hermeticism. Barthes preferred awareness of time and place from writers and a rejection of the notion of universality.


Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Indeed, like all post-war theoreticians, Barthes was a product of Marxist ideas, common among European intellectuals. The political and Marxist ideas of Brecht were incorporated into structuralism by Barthes who insisted upon the importance of discovering and characterizing structures–not to find “meaning”–but to understand how structures function and how meanings are engendered by a logic of symbols or to be more precise the logical order of their “arrangement” in a structure. In contrast to traditional Marxists, Barthes did not find oppression in social relations but in the order of signs or in the framework of language itself. The order of meanings in a lisable text forces the reader to participate in violence in that to name a meaning is an act of political and ideological force. This forcible naming or interpretation subjugates and subordinates other interpretations and other meanings and other voices. Social oppression was embedded in language and acted out in the level of language, which was why Barthes chose popular as his focus in his 1953 book, Mythologies.

Language, as Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) insisted, structures the unconscious. Although he attended the seminars of the psychologist, Bathes, however, never seemed to have been particularly interested in the gendered nature of language. As a student of Lacan, Barthes would have recognized the primal act of splitting the subject as psychologically oppressive and that this act would ally the subject with language—a primal oppression. He also understand that language, arranged in terms of opposites with one term subjugation the other, was essentially oppressive. In other words, there is no avoiding the connection between language and power, but Lacan’s approach to language was, like that of Ferdinand de Saussure, more abstract than social. But Barthes, under the influence of Julia Kristeva (1941-), came to understand that abstraction was a gesture of universality and that a way out of “transcendence” was to take note of the materiality of language.

Barthes responded to this literary spectacle of will to power by circumventing the power reader expectations and complicity through a realization that there discernible limits to this readable text and its predictable referential codes. The readerly text presented a repetition of familiar codes that, in their reliability, induced nausea and made the reader sick from experiencing the same narrative. To overcome nausea, the reader must learn how to re-write and learn of the plurality behind the codes which actually contain multiple meanings. From being a passive consumer, the active reader is able to shift to the performative mode and reading becomes a performance. When the reader performs writing, the issue of “authorship” is blurred and the “Text” is presented through a process of writing and making meaning. With the shift from what Barthes called the “Work” to the new performance, the “Text,” language becomes an open-ended structure, exerting its own linguistic force and the text becomes productive. When Barthes began to understand that by working agains the codes of social power and in finding the hidden plurality in language, he slipped from the strictures of Structuralism into its next stage, often called Post-Structuralism. “Working” on the language or turning language into performance forced a contrast between an authoritative reading and the new undecidability, which overflowed the boundaries of communication.

This move to textuality meant that barriers between texts were broken down through the linguistic system of references, meaning that there can be no text, or no textuality, without intertextuality or a movement among texts. The text, with Barthes, must be read not as a form of representation but as a sequence of allusions. Once the active reader learns how to move beyond the forced meanings and the expected narrative and into the realm of language itself, the reader experiences pleasure. Under the impact of Lacan, by the late 1960s, Barthes moved to the body as the place of evaluation. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes had insisted that the body was the site of style, but with his 1973 book, The Pleasure of the Text, he moved beyond the personal or the personae of the artist/author to the text itself. It could be a criticism to say that the conventional or ‘readerly” text is always bound up with the pleasure of the reader and the pleasure of the text is the pleasure of passive consumption of the conventional. This kind of reading of this kind of writing is part of the consumer culture.

In comparison, reading the “writerly” text produces another kind of pleasure and Barthes opened the book with a distinction between “pleasure” and “bliss.” “The text you write must prove to me that it desire me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language..” Only certain kinds of books can produce or induce bliss. To describe this “bliss,” the pleasure of the text that is jouissance, an intense, violent form of pleasure, an interruption of the consciousness, Barthes goes back to one of his essays in Mythologies, the strip tease. He wrote, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” The effects of this kind of writing of the text is comparable to erotic pleasure, for during the process–whether that of reading/writing or sexual excitation–our sense as unified subjects is suspended. Therefore, as Barthes, explained,

Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again..Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, it ignores the play of language..the other reading skips nothing; it weights, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages–and not the anecdote..

Because pleasure resists appropriation by those in power, pleasure has traditionally been suppressed and repressed by philosophy and ideology, but the right to pleasure is reaffirmed in literature to counter political (ideological) readings. Barthes makes a distinction between plaisir and jouissance when he wrote,“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” The text de plaisir is the classical readable or lisable text, while the texte de jouissance resists language and becomes a threat. This latter, or avant-garde text works on two surfaces or plays between the two edges, which are the conformist narrative and the subversive écriture. The space between the expected and the subversive is a gap between the two and this gap, as Barthes pointed out, is erotic. Barthes considered the text to be “a fetish object and this fetish desires me..but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure..”

Three years ago, Barthes “killed” the author, or to be more precise, he extended the possibilities of the text, but in his new erotic analysis of the text, he brought the author back. But now, what was the fate of the reader? With the body as a site of transgression, experiencing socially deviant bliss or transgression, Barthes shifted to discussing literature as desire. Under the influence of Lacan and Kristeva, Jouissance became a key concept for Barthes in his discussion of the play-text. Jouissance means “to die,” an orgasm, a death, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure and thus, the texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. “No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in a mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, form the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois..The asocial character if bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence to the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.”

Active reading and re-writing dissects author or the cult of the writer and repeated or iterative canonical codes that dominate society. Writing becomes not theory but an actual practice or praxis and names codes and stereotypes, calling them out, in order to cut them down. The task of the critic is to call attention to pre-existing institutional languages as objects to be transformed. One of the main points Barthes made in previous writings was that the fabrication of meaning is more important than meaning. For years, Barthes had opposed two terms, the “subjective” or the Romanticism of writing and the author to “objective” or the materiality of language itself, but in The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes replaced the impossible notion of “neutral writing” or “zero degree” writing a “third term,” the notion of writing as play. The process of circulation through a play of codes defeats the structuralist goal of exhausting the meaning of the text. The circulation is activated by codes and is not another structure but new perspectives opened up in the text by the blessed-out reader.

It is at this point, that, having brought back the author through the force of desire, Barthes could now deal with the reader. Because Barthes doubted that there could be an aesthetic of mere pleasure, Le plaisir du texte promotes an aesthetic of a play-text through jouissance, the key concept of the play-text. Jouissance indicates “to die” in an orgasm, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure. The texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. Not only is the reader dead of pleasure, the texte also “kills” its topic, and the language is left in pieces and the culture, as a result, is also fragmented. As Barthes wrote, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces.” Nothing can be reconstructed or recovered; the subject is obliterated and the writer is erased; all possible meanings are destroyed. Plaisir is a general term for reading pleasures generated by the excesses of the text. Barthes’s account of reading is materialistic in that he replaced mind with body and its materiality of signifiers and its source of pleasures. What comes from the body is deeper, truer, and more natural. “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” “There is a chance of avant-garde whenever it is the body and not ideology that writes.”

For Barthes, the enemy was always the establishment, always the ideology of the culture that was his target. However, in The Pleasure of the Text, he understood that ideology was the shadow of the text. “There are those,” he wrote, “who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the ‘dominant ideology,’ but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text..the text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Barthes abandoned the utopia of “white writing” for the atopia of the text of pleasure. This atopia allows the text to be outside of ideology and yet is activated by ideology its shadow. Another term for ideology would be history itself, the history from which writing can never escape. The writing of Barthes for the past twenty years had always struggled between opposing two terms, in this case, utopia and atopia, and, as always, he turned to the third term “shadow” to fill the gap–the favorite space of Barthes. It is the penchant for the in between that allowed Barthes to find a third term to place between “writing” and “style” and that term would be “voice,” the physical note which ends The Pleasure of the Text. “Writing aloud,” he wrote, (is) “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat..the anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: “The Death of the Author”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


“The Death of the Author” (1968)

“The Death of the Author,” written in 1967 and published in 1968, is a stance against the enclosure of Structuralism and the authority of formalism. While the essay by Roland Barthes makes sense in the context of the intellectual life of Paris, it has often been misinterpreted when it was removed from the transitional context of theory passing out of Structuralism into Post-Structuralism as a reaction to the events of May 1968. However, as was pointed out the date of writing predated the date of publication, but the “revolution” of the essay had been a long time in the making. As a product of Literature and the classical tradition in France, the “author” was part of a system of political and economic authority that Barthes began working to dismantle from the 1950s. As Barthes wrote, “The author is a modern character.” But more interestingly are the words he uses to describe the social condition of being an author: “..the author still reigns..” and “culture is tyrannically centered on the author..” In other words, by conflating the work and the author, the classical system of reading controls the interpretation to the authority of a single voice, that of the creator.

The “Death of the Author” is an extension of the end of the unified subject, and as such, Barthes was expressing the prevailing intellectual stance that was being written and would be expressed among that group of thinker who were attending the seminars of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in Paris. If the subject is dissolved into language, then so too is the fiction of the author or the independent creator of a work of art. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, the “author” is a modern invention, derived from capitalist ideology that granted importance to the author’s person that was part of the wider system of ownership, property and privilege. “The Author” is part of a capitalist stress on control through authority: the authority of the writer him/herself or the authoritative interpretation of privileged interpreter. “The Author” is also part of the Enlightenment stress on individuality that inversely prioritized expertise and uniqueness. An explanation for the work of art would be sought in the person of the producer, his tastes, his history, his passions. In addition it is possible to locate an “origin” for the Romantic notion of the writer as creator, for the author is a historical entity, created by Romanticism and the stress on the significance of subjectivity.

This essay is very short, and indeed many of the texts of Barthes are quite brief, with “Myth Today” being uncharacteristically long. Part of the impact of Barthes is not just that he gave voice to ideas in circulation but also that he did so in a timely manner–short essays are easier to publish than long books which take years to write–and in a public language that was easily accessible. American writers would later find his writings difficult but that was only because they were reading them twenty years late and were not part of the conversation that generated them in the first place. When it was published in 1968, the anti-establishment tone of the essay hit the right note and fell into keeping with its own time. That said, because the essay predated much of contemporary Postmodern theory, subsequent Postmodern thinking has assumed that the point Barthes was making is that the author does not exist, or that the artist has been eradicated. However, the author was resurrected in The Pleasure of the Text in 1971, indicating that ending the role of the author was not the intent of Barthes.


Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Barthes wanted only to extend the meaning and interpretation of the work of art to include the interaction of other texts and the responses of the reader. The German School of Constance will take up this notion of the active reader and develop the role of the reader into “reader-response” criticism and the impact of plural readings upon the act(s) of interpretation. The theoreticians of Constance developed Reception Theory to explain the interaction between the work and the audience as the “horizon of expectations,” but it is important to make a distinction: the scholars of Constance were motivated by the student movements of the late sixties. The ongoing battle fought by Roland Barthes was with the fortress of French Literature which was part of a network of ownership and control. Classical Marxism would necessitate the concept of property, but Structuralism, on the other hand, would understand writing, not as property, but as part of a linguistic system. From either or both perspectives, the aesthetic or the form of the text becomes irrelevant. “The Death of the Author” puts forward a series of ideas far more important than whether or not the Author is “dead.” It is here that Barthes would write of the concept of “intertextuality.”

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), the goal was a neutral and blank language that used words in a material and concrete manner that freed them from social codes. For Barthes, as he had mentioned several times before, it was the nineteenth century poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) who understood that language speaks, not the author. In his famous poem Un coup de dés, Mallarmé explained the importance of the gaps between the words that rattled across the white pages like a die rolling across a casino table: “..the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text. The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it..” In other words, Mallarmé equated words with silence or gaps, emphasizing the materiality of language and the performative nature of reading.

And then, several decades later, came Surrealism. Due to the use of psychological games, such as automatic writing, it was Surrealism, Barthes said, that “helped desacralize the image of the Author.” After a process of questioning and slow unraveling, from a Structuralist perspective, the author’s only tool is language itself and therefore trapped in language, authorship is never personal and the author is secondary to language. Compared to the strong pseudo “presence” of the Author, writing is neuter or “zero degree” or “white” and composite or plural, a site of the loss of the subject and of identity. Because, post-Enlightenment philosophy challenged the notion of the Cartesian subject, writing is the destruction of every voice and every origin. When one recounts/writes/represents, Barthes noted, a gap appears and the voice looses its “origin.”

The withdrawal of the author, Barthes wrote, “utterly transforms the modern text” and time is also transformed. When the Author is “present,” there is the before and after writing time, when writing begins, the author enters into his/her own death. In order to write, one must utilize language, and language, as Lacan asserted, “speaks the subject.” The reader or “the scriptor is born at the same time as his text..and every text is written essentially here and now.” Therefore “writing” changed from an act of recording or representation to a performance or a speech-act, which Barthes christened as “performative.” The term “scriptor” is then linked to“a pure gesture of inscription” which “traces a field without origin..” Barthes elaborated when he stated that the text was “a multidimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”Therefore, certain consequences occur: first, the “book itself is but a tissue of signs, endless imitation, infinitely postponed” and it is “futile” to attempt to “decipher” a text.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of the unified subject came under question through Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through the filter of semiotics in the fifties, and in the sixties semiotics gave way to Structuralism with Roland Barthes as its major spokesperson. If language speaks the subject, then there can be no pure gesture of inscription. The character Barthes referred to as the “Modern Scriptor” buried the Romantic notion of the Author. The hand/writing has become detached from the voice and writes traces without origin. The result is a “Text” which is a multi-dimensional space, a fabric of quotations, activated from thousands of sources from modern culture. According to Barthes, “..the writer can only imitate an ever anterior, never original gesture; his sole power is to mingle writings..” A book is a woven cloth of signs, endless imitation, with meaning infinitely postponed.

To impose an Author upon a text is to impose a brake on interpretation, to give the work a final signified. Writing becomes closed. The “author” becomes a component of reading, a theoretical designation, a fiction employed for the sake of discursive convenience. In other words “Vincent van Gogh” is a capitalist invention suitable for selling art and Ernest Hemingway is a signifier of a particular genre of American writing. Over the years, Barthes built a case that work could be only of its own time but that in order to exist art was a composite. As he wrote,

..a text consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation: but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this sie is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed but the reader; the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any of them being lost, all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination, but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history; without biography, without psychology, is is only that someone who holds collected into one and the same field all traces from which writing is constituted..

But as the end of the essay indicated, the death of the author does not mean the demise of the writer and points instead to the agency of the reader in bringing meanings to a text. The reader and the writer co-create a text that in itself cannot be singular or bounded as a “work,” but is inherently intertextual, (a term he borrowed from Julia Kristeva) that is, a “text” rather than a “work.” The total being of writing is multiple writings that are engaged in a dialogue. Writing is where multiplicity is collected, not by the author, but by the reader. The unity of the text is not its origin but its destination. According to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be required by the death of the author”.

So the author must die in order to allow a space for the reader. It is the reader, after all, who makes meaning. The reader/critic can never get outside of the language any more than the writer/author be an original author and go beyond known language. Barthes took up the question of the breakdown of the boundaries of the “work” into the “text” which has no bounds in his 1971 essay, “From Work to Text.” At the time he was writing, the old disciplines were breaking down in favor of the trend towards the interdisciplinary, a mixing of fields and professions quite comfortable for Parisian intellectuals. Barthes refers to the breakdown of old disciplines as a “mutation” that is part of an “epistemological shift.” A new objectless object and a new language was formed, as “work” evolved into text, which is located at the intersection of author and reader. Barthes borrowed a distinction from Lacan: “reality” is shown, but the “real” is proved. Therefore the text must not be understood as “a computable object” but as “a methodological field.”

The Work is seen, “held in the hand,” while the text is demonstrated, “held in language” and exists only when caught up in language. Text is experienced only as an activity in production. The text is “constitutive movement” or a moment of construction or assemblage and cannot stop at “literature” which is formally interpreted. The text is plural and fulfills the plurality of meaning and depends upon dissemination which Barthes described as “traversal.” “Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production,” he emphasized. The author cannot be returned except as a guest because the text is a network, a combinative operation. The text is play, task, production and practices, meaning that reading and writing are linked together in the same signifying practice. The pleasure of the text is that the text is a social space where languages circulate, because “..the theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of reading..”

Barthes criticized Structuralism for setting up a meta-language to critique language, claiming that a metalanguage is a linguistic impossibility, for one can never escape the effects of language. Post-Structuralism or a reconsideration of Structuralism admits that it can never be a theory, only an activity, because the post-Structuralist can never escape language. If reading was a performative activity, then the “Text..practices the infinite postponement of the signified..the Test is thus restored to language; like language, it is structured but decentered, without closure..Text is fulfills the very plurality of meaning..” Text depends upon “dissemination.”Although less well known that the predecessor essay, “The Death of the Author,” “From Work to Text” was quite well developed and Barthes developed a complex discussion of Text,which he capitalized. He wrote, ” ..the Text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of the doxa (is not general opinion — constitutive of our democratic societies and powerfully aided by mass communications — defined by its limits, the energy with which it excludes, itscensorship?). Taking the word literally, it may be said that the Text is always paradoxical..”

In explaining that the Text is “plural,” Barthes presented an early explanation of “intertextuality.” Intertexuality will be discussed in greater detail in another post, but the idea was introduced to the Parisian university community by Julia Kristeva (1941-) in 1966, but was disseminated and popularized by Barthes who defined intertextuality he wrote in his characteristic run-on fashion: The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the ‘sources’, the ‘influences’ of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. However due to ” a process of filiation, there is “an appropriation of the work to its author.” But, Barthes insisted, As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father. Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work: the latter refers to the image of anorganism which grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being).”

For Barthes, as he frequently wrote, the consumable work or classical “book” produced more than mere boredom, it produced nausea. The solution is that the text be considered as pleasure: “ is bound to jouissance, that is to a pleasure without separation..” Barthes took the position of a politically engaged writer who combines Marxism with Structuralism to critique the bourgeois mythologies embedded in popular narratives. He was haunted, as were all Postmodern writers with the difficulty of using language to criticize language. Barthes and his fellow critics understood the critic as being trapped into the use of a meta-language that is as implicated in language as the language that is being examined. For the transitional writers, there is no way out of this dilemma but later writers will find a solution to the problem of language. Barthes was an important link between structuralism and post-structuralism because he understands that the use of language is tantamount to the use of power. The world is composed of language is is a logosphere composed of discourses that create their own truth by their internal force and their inner connections. The writer spent his career examining how the use of language and its structures construct “truths” that are accepted as “reality” instead of what these arguments actually are–writing or literature.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Julia Kristeva: Transgression and the Féminine


Transgression and the Feminine

The philosophy and theories generated by Julia Kristeva bear traces of her own personal marginality: a woman in a man’s world, an east European from Bulgaria in the heart of Parisian intellectual culture, and a philosopher trying to write her way out of the patriarchy while still maintaining a relationship with that power structure. When Kristeva slipped through a crack in the Iron Curtain, she arrived in Paris in 1965, the high point of Existentialism and of Lacanian theory. Years would pass before the intellectuals of Paris would rethink their politics and practice and a decade would go by before ideas on feminism would be articulated. Like all women caught in the liminal zone between the last of masculine domination and the first gestures of female defiance, Kristeva reflected the transition into feminism through a critique of the texts of male precursors.

Keeping in mind that Kristeva was an Eastern-European exile, who came to Paris before May 1968, it is clear that her intent is to involve art in politics through the avant-garde in art. When Kristeva arrived in France, the Hegelian lectures of Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) had been the cutting edge of philosophy in Paris, setting an example for a way to rethink traditional philosophy as inherited from the late 18th and early 19th century. The real crises that forced theory towards a more modern position was the evident failure of yet another uprising of the working class by early June 1968 and the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which exposed the fraud of Communism. As a result of these disillusioning events, there was a return to a Kantian morality of disinterest and a sense of moral commitment to the public good, fueled by the Paris events. For Kristeva and her colleagues, French theory should be political: intellectuals were engagé, involved and took political stances, and opposed the establishment through their texts. Kristeva would propose the use of poetic language becomes a ethical function for art. Poetry (art) is the “carnival” to society, a subversive practice which is destructive and conducive to madness, becoming a refusal of the “flight into madness.”

Kristeva was part of the newly formed Tel quel group, organized around the famous journal of the same name, established in 1960. Her group was engaged but opposed to writing/speaking in a “transparent” fashion, inherited from Sartre. These intellectuals become materialist writers who followed the non-academic work of Philippe Sollers (1936-), her husband, who legitimated flamboyance, intensity, and excessiveness. After the events of 1968, Tel quel (“as is”) issued a manifesto and declared the new stance for the French intellectual. Along with her colleagues, Jean-Louis Bardry, Hubert Damish, Denis Hollier, Julia Kristeva gave her support to the following points, which read in part:

it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages; consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state; in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science); any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although Tel quel remained Marxist, its authors shifted towards the theory of language and Post-structuralism, Kristeva analyzed linguistic theory from the standpoint of psychoanalysis. As one of Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) students, Kristeva took up the issue of symbolic language and its hidden other side, as unspoken element to language that she developed and named semanalysis. Through “semanalysis” (the analysis of the semoitic as opposed to the Symbolic) Kristeva reasserted the buried and repressed theoretical Mother upon whose abjected body, the consciousness of the subject is formed. Her theory of semiotics investigated poetic language as a productivity of the text through which it is possible to speak about what used to be unspeakable: the prohibited language of the maternal material body. It is important to understand that Kristeva, much like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would later do with difference and différance, commandeers a familiar word: “semiotics” and alters it slightly to “the semiotic.”


Julia Kristeva (1941-)

As Mary Ann Caws in her 1973 discussion of the Tel quel group noted, the editors used the neutral term “text” in order to separate writing from a system of capitalist ownership and valorization of the individual. In “Tel quel: Text and Revolution,” Caws marked off some of the key words for the translingualistic take on language: “Materiality, Refusal, Transgression/The sign, whether painted or written, has become opaque and therefore visible, so that the interest formerly attaching to content now attaches to the language and the structure of the text or canvas.” Caws continued, “An activity disruptive and self-aware, a development of semiotic consciousness: this general description of the deliberate and unreadable action of the “revolutionary avant-garde” displays the recurring themes of protest, distance, cutting off, refusal and political commitment, visible behind the proliferation of technical vocabulary.” By “translinguistic,” Caws means that the study of language has moved beyond Saussure and is now “a productive process, operating within another space at once self-constituting and self-exhausting, an inscription traversing language..rather than enclosed within it.”

Although Kristeva, possibly due to her association with the French feminists, is often severed by later explicators of her work from Tel quel, the genesis and the development of her break into Poststructuralist intertextuality remained part of the development of a very small but very influential group of thinkers. Clearly, as a member of the Tel quel group, Julia Kristeva was part of a group that was rethinking the role of language in society, post revolution. In La Révolution du langue poétique, 1974/1984, her doctoral thesis, Kristeva introduced the concept of le sémiotique, which would articulate the realm of the pre-Symbolic, which is the basis of poetic language. Although “the semoiotic” can be located within the signifying process, one should image the pre-Symbolic as the Feminine coming back to live and erupting back into consciousness to disrupt the Name of the Father.

This feminine element is the chora or receptacle for poetic language. The chora is a place, a theoretical site for activity that underlies the Symbolic. The chora, a term borrowed from Plato, is unbridled energy and instinctive drives that are part of a dialectic of the positive and the negative, the creative and the destructive. The chora, defined by Kristeva as “the place where the subject is both generated and negated,” is therefore part of the Mother’s Body, which is the unrepresentable and belonging to the semiotic as the pre-Symbolic, meaning the materiality–the energy and the drive–that precedes the Symbolic. The semiotic is the Voice and the Body, compared to the immaterial Father who is Symbolic. In a dialectic with the Mother who is the chora or Non-Place or the Semiotic, the destination of the child, which is society belongs to the realm of the Symbolic or signification. As Kristeva wrote, ‘What we call significancethen, is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language.” Kristeva, using Hegelian dialectical thinking, opposes the semiotic to the symbolic, which are resolved in the “thetic,” which is the “threshold or the resolution between the two. But the thetic not only the place where the human being constitutes herself, it is also a crossing over between boundaries.

But Kristeva re-places that non-place and makes the chora into a Place that provides the materiality for the symbolic. If the Chora precedes the division between subject and object, then the “feminine” is located at language’s unrepresentable materiality, which is indeterminate and ephemeral. Kristeva questions all forms of formalism and Structuralism, which is based upon reason and rationality, which is inherently male, and in doing so opened the way to Post-Structuralism. In opposing the concept of the poetic to the rational in language and in gendering this “poetic” as female, Kristeva places the poetic on the side of the political in that it disrupts official (male) (establishment) language. Like many women of her generation, Kristeva takes the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jacques Lacan and holds them up to the light of criticality, not with the intent of dismantling their ideas from the outside but from the standpoint of appropriating their theories from the inside.

In the writings of Sigmund Freud, the woman is the “dark continent,” for Jacques Lacan, she does not exist, and it is the self-imposed task for Kristeva to recover the long lost body of the Mother and to reinstate the “feminine” in language. In Totem and Taboo, Freud’s version of the origin of Law in the Killing of the Father by the sons in order to possess the wives of the father is one the many grim tales of male-made violence. Freud places this act of fratricide at the heart of the incest taboo. The sons suffer remorse and melancholia (the refusal or inability to mourn) and renounce their claims on the father’s women (The Mother) in the name of the father. The primal Oedipal drama was the struggle between father and sons over the body of the murder, resulting in the shame of murder, which is the name for the repressed memory of the time before imposition of the Law. The original transgression, the murder of the Father in order to possess the Mother, becomes the foundation of the Law. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) would point out that the beginning of organized society and the advent of the symbolic was based, in Freudian and Marxist terms, upon the exchange of women. Lacan’s version of this primal trauma is somewhat different. The Sacrifice (of the Mother), made by all children who must be ushered into the social, is a re-enactment of this Founding Death, initiates the Symbolic at the moment in which the pre-Symbolic is divided from the Symbolic.

Here in this primal repression: the renunciation of the Mother, and this interdiction against incest, is an end to jouissance. Jouissance is a word that translates, badly, into the English word, “pleasure,” which in inadequate for the full meaning intended by French writers. The most succinct definition comes from Jane Gallop in Thinking Through the Body. As Gallop explained that “..Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized, and legitimated by culture, and jouissance which is shocking, ego-disruptive, an d in conflict with the canons of culture..” Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva were close colleagues and there were several topics in which both were interested, including intertextuality. The act of writing or the performativity of the text was the other side of (traditional) writing and Kristeva examined jouissance, the disruptive act of forbidden or unacknowledged “pleasure,” as the subject of serious philosophical attention. Joy is unnameable, the other side of reality, which taps into the unthinkable or the female, beyond tradition and history, drives thought beyond itself, to its own limits. Here new thought is possible or to put it another way “thought is again possible.” Writing becomes experience and engenders jouissance and pleasure and perversion. She echoes Luce Irigaray (1930-) in pointing out that the Law of the Father is predicated on the Murder of the Mother.

But for later generations of feminists, such as Judith Butler, Kristeva’s revision of phallic theory was too cautious and too wrapped up in language. Indeed, Butler called for a greater emphasis on the “materiality” of the female body, rather than allowing the woman to vanish into the theoretical materiality of language. Although Kristeva never broke with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, in her 1993 article, “Trans-Positions and Difference: Kristeva and Difference,” Tilottama Rajan argues that it is important for her to remain within the precincts of Lacan in order to retrieve “the materiality” that Freud left behind, even if it means staying in the patriarchal family. But Rajan suggests that Kristeva took an intertextual position in order to attack male theory from within as an act of a “transgression of the symbolic.” Indeed, Kristeva’s writings build upon the ideas of others and these ideas are not explained, leaving the texts opaque to the uninitiated reader and drawing the reader in the know into an extended conversation among generational writers.

By the eighties, Kristeva could be linked to key terms–all linked to the feminine: the semiotic, jouissance, abjection and transgression. “Transgression,” as described by Suzanne Guerlac in her 1996 article (later part of her book), “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)” “If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without-at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel-it is “transgression,”inherited from Bataille” and transmitted from the Surrealist writer to the Tel quel group via Michel Foucault (1926-1984). As Guerlac explained,

Foucault defined transgression as”a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance)of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.

Within French theory, “transgression” would be meaningless without “interdiction,” or that which is prohibited, that which is taboo: the limits that can be transgressed. In her 1997 book, Literary Polemics, Guerlac continued her discussion of transgression which is linked to art through Breton and revolution through Sartre and to language through Mallarmé, all of which became reconciled, as she put it, through Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Thinking once again of intertextuality working through Kristeva, it can be seen that she takes over these disjointed but joined ideas and re-pieces them together for her own purposes: to make a case for avant-garde (poetry) as a form of artistic revolution. Poetic language, rather than the logical language of exposition and knowledge, is the language of transgression, through the process of rejection and negation.

In returning to the semiotic and the material, art is both a revolution in that it is subversive of the received order and is also transgressive in the Surrealist sense. As Kristeva stated, “It is in the so-called art practices that the semiotic condition of the symbolic, also reveals it self to be its destroyer.” However, in linking art and revolution, Kristeva marks the text with both its contradiction and the formation of the contradiction, or rejection which can also contain discourse. Thus jouissance and its opposite returns under the guise of transgression and its opposite, meaning. Transgression or the defiance of a “sacred” law is bound up in both art and religion. Religion ritualizes and enshrines prohibition and taboo and enmeshes the sacred with its opposite the profane. Art is the expression of transgression which, as was noted, part of the feminine, the suppressed, the murdered. As Ceceila Sjoholm stated in her 2005 book, Kristeva and the Political,

The conflict between the semiotic and the symbolic is not just to be interpreted in terms of poetic versus normative language. It is intertwined with the processes of history, ideology and religious where woman introjected as the threatening fantasmatic inside is recast and projected as a fearful and contaminating outside.

The next post will discuss abjection, the contamination of the repressed Mother, and the alter ego of transgression.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Anyone who has read the writings of Jacques Lacan came to the humbling realization that in any meaningful way s/he simply didn’t exist. Having gone through the boot camp of the Oedipal Order, the socialized (non)person emerges as an emotional cripple who will spend the rest of her life lying prone on a Freudian couch. Whatever shards of primal authenticity that might have been present at birth have been pummeled and buried under the threats of the Law of the Father who has Forbidden all manner of delights to a child who is stunned into submission. What is left behind after what appears to be two years of indoctrination, is not a shell, not a shadow of a former self, but a false impression of something called “ego,” a presumption to which one clings. It was the prime directive of Jacques Lacan to expose the false notion of the Cartesian self and to reveal the empty mask of a masquerading persona. From an emotional standpoint, the student must reject both Lacan’s enterprise and his conclusions, but from an intellectual perspective, Lacan’s position makes perfect sense.

Because the human subject is forged through the acquisition of language, the (faux)ego is an assumption—in that one assumes an ego as one dons a mask. Separated from “reality” which cannot be realized, Language is inherently and necessarily Symbolic. Lacan maintains that in order to achieve social personhood (persona), the child must submit to or accept the inevitability of the Symbolic. If language is split from reality, then when the subject acquires symbolic language, s/he becomes symbolized: the language speaks the subject. In order to be spoken, the subject must experience Loss (of the Forbidden Mother) and Gains entry into the social order. An Exchange, based upon Lack, has been made, the bargain has been struck and the ego or the subject does not and cannot exist.

But Lacan discussed the subject, which he asserted does not exist, at great length, so how are we to think of this non-existent “subject” of which so much is written? It is possible to resolve the dilemma by approaching it sideways. First, the subject does not exist and yet we must speak of it, or to put it more precisely, it seems as if we can, are able, to speak of subject (or ego). It is possible to speak of something that does not exist: we speak of ghosts, witches, zombies and vampires, and these are creatures of the imagination that do not exist. If you are Anne Rice, the non-existence of vampires does not trouble you, but if you are a philosopher, speaking of objects that are not objects or of the non-existent is troubling, especially when, unlike Anne Rice, you are compelled to address the non-addressable.

The solution was suggested by Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) who designated these troubling non-objects as “concepts,” and then proceeded on with the discussion. Another solution was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): silence. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) confronted the problem of how to write about the non-existent by accepting the idea of “concept” from Frege, but, in the base of Being, Heidegger put Being sous rature or “under erasure,” by allowing “Being” to be written but also written out by deliberately crossing over the word with a large X. Although he does not resort to the ploy employed by Martin Heidegger, Lacan who was very aware of Frege and Heidegger can be seen as following their lead: “subject” is a concept, but that is all it is—an idea.

Repudiating the Cartesian notion of self or what Lacan called a “false being,” and the Freudian insistence on the ego of the conscious mind, Lacan wanted to disrupt the notion of the unified subject and the idea of presence through inversion. For Lacan, the subject is split and it is the unconscious that must supersede the conscious mind, as in U/c, meaning that the conscious mind is always overridden by the forces beneath, so to speak. In fact as Bruce Fink pointed out in The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, “the subject is nothing but his split.” The “splitting of the I,” means that the subject is split when s/he is inserted into the Symbolic Order. The insertion, which is always forced, necessarily results in alienation of self from self and repression by the Law of the self.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81)

The split subject is mediated and can be understood only by being mediated through discourse, but this mediation, also a forcing event, creates a hidden structure: the unconscious. In Freudian terms, the end result of the “family romance” mans that the child is traumatized and the primal wound gives rise to the unconscious, where all that is not to be thought of is buried. But, in its raw state, the split create division and in order for the human being to function, if the (“social”) wound cannot be healed, the gap must be closed. Between the subject, which does not exist but thinks it does, and the world, which does exist but cannot be uttered, there must be a Third Order, referred to as the Suture. Think of the suture as a shunt or as a form of “stitching” the subject into society. But the Suture also represents the tear or splitting, which can only be mended but always leaves a scar–the trauma–behind.

When it is seen that the S/s (Signifier/signified) has a visible bar–the split/suture—is also the wound that causes the alienation of the subject within language. Because the subject is within language, as in caught or trapped inside, the subject is condemned to speak indirectly, through the assemblage piecemeal action of constructive collage, or through the animal-like mimicry of mimesis, and (self) representation. The subject, therefore, embedded in this indirectness, can never be an ego, in the Freudian sense, and can be only a persona. As as pointed out above, the self, the ego, the subject is formed as the result of Lack, which, in its turn, engenders need, desire, demand. Need, Desire, Demand—this is the the Triad of Lacan, replacing the Triad of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. In the Hegelian sense, the conflict or the dialectic between Desire and Law produces drives, named by Lacan using Freudian terms: “eros” and “thantos.” These binary drives are the engines of the “subject.” Love and Death become opposites or polarities at war within the subject. The paradox of the death wish is that wishing for Death is also wishing for completion.

The completion can come about only when one is re-fused with the original Forbidden object, the Mother, or a substitution for the Mother. Eros must be displaced elsewhere and a substitution must be found, and these mechanisms of “displacement” and “substitution” are also functions of language, as Metaphor and Metonymy. In order to illustrate the process of becoming, as Freud would have it, “civilized,” Lacan sets up the family (Freud’s “family romance”) as a symbolic structure which is social or cultural and is thus contrasted to the natural world of animal promiscuity. It is important to note that the family, as posited by Lacan, is tripartite. The “family” beings with two terms: the Mother and the Child.” The third term is the Father who must act, who must intervene and split or separate the dyad of Mother and Child. The triangulated family—the father and child fighting for ownership of the mother—is the transcendence of order and culture, which rises above of the instinctive and the natural. The family becomes a proper “family” only when it comes into being through the Forbidden and the force used to establish the cultural/symbolic order by Forbidding the Forbidden. Force assumes sacrifice (loss) on the part of the child who has no power and who will never grasp the depth of the loss and the extent of the trauma and may be unable to grasp the Gain.

Lacan seemed to assume that “natural” is also “profane” and that culture is superior, but even without assuming a hierarchy, it is possible to state that humans become humans, rise above the animal, through language or the capacity to symbolize. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Lacan does not accept language or langue as an inherently human capacity and leave it there. Lacan envisions an Oedipal narrative of punishment for desiring the forbidden–the blinding of Oedipus (his self-sacrifice and self-punishment) is the equivalent of the subject’s inability to “see” or to articulate the world. The “blinding” is also the Sacrifice of sexual relations with parents or siblings. The Sacrifice of Incest corresponds to Repression, the crushing down of the Forbidden Desires. The Sacrifice which is the precondition for transition to symbolic order, results in a Splitting (Spaltung) of the subject due to his/her forcible entry into society and into the symbolic order of language. Ultimately, the subject is alienated in language, and, like Oedipus, bears a social wound.

The ego/subject, which is a fabrication, comes from a system of translation from the unconscious to the conscious by means of symbolization which is a process of substitution, displacement, condensation and referentially. Thus language is the precondition for the act of becoming and social wound introduces the subject into a symbolizing language. But to state that the subject is alienated through language is to invite an interrogation of language itself. As was pointed out in previous posts, the logic is clear: if the subject is split, then the source of the split must be within language itself. (S/s) means that Language is alienated from itself. Just as there is no authenticity of self, there is no authenticity in language. The artificiality of language or the arbitrary (dis)connection between the sign and the signifier or the object and the word is the profound insight of Saussure. However, Lacan’s de-stabalized alienated language is very different from Saussure’s stabilized language.

Saussure created an elegant architectonic structure for the sign, the signifier, and the signified and his system assumed a fixed position from which meaning is constructed. For the purposes of establishing and explaining the system, it was necessary for Saussure to assume immobility. But, as art historian Erwin Panofsky quickly found out, the “Signified” as culture is a huge field and a constantly shifting one. Rather than attempting to fix the diachronic, Lacan addressed the problem by demoting the Signified (diachronic level) and elevated the Signifier, allowing it to float freely. As the Signifier floats, it shifts its position to another site, and if the Signifier can shift and move, then the Signified becomes less significant. Claude Lévi-Strauss also spoke of the signifier as a “zero symbol,” floating without clinging to the signified. A close reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Lacan, in turn, wrote of the impossibility of a one-to-one correspondence between the “tide” of signifiers and the “tide” of the signifieds that “float” one past another. Meaning becomes mobilized as the signifiers “cascade” down the signifying chain, or as Wittgenstein suggested “meaning is in the use.”

There can be no metalanguage.

What becomes important as a result of this line of reasoning is that the nature of the connections among the elements and not the elements themselves is most interesting. In other words, representation is not the equivalent of the thing itself, and, as Saussure pointed out, the nexus between words and things is broken. What is left behind is the in-between space in which writing is born of alienated language. The followers of Lacan took his ideas on language and extended them into writing that becomes materialized through the sounds and rhythms of language. Language and its floating signifiers is freed to revel in a plurality of meanings. The act of writing becomes an act of lived experience. Writing as jouissance or pure pleasure does not produce anything but is reminiscent of those deeply repressed but strongly remembered time of fusion with the original love object of desire.

Jouissance splits writing from itself and alienated already alienated language. A literature of experience is unreadable literature or limit-literature. In other words the writer accepts the alienated identity of language and reconfigures language into de-naturalized words, creating a new form of non-transparent writing called by Roland Barthes, écriture. Thus écriture transcends the instrumentality of language, or écrivance. The assumption that language is instrumental–can articulate or is transparent–écrivance—is broken. Breaking the assumed mask of the false and none-existent slink between language and thing is possible because language-as-message, communication to a receiver, is based already upon the “objectness” or the “object hood” or separateness of words which are homeless–floating signifiers. Thanks to Lacan,language is a representation of a representation. For Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, writing is not transparent but opaque. To write is not to reveal but to be performative and not informative. Jouissance is the experience of the limits of language and writing against the limits becomes a field, not of knowledge, but of enjoyment.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


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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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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