Lacan’s main theory was that the unconscious was structured like a language. From the material signifier he moved on to jouissance which implies both sexual and aesthetic enjoyment, bliss or possession as the end of desire. Later he speaks of ‘lalangue’ which is a layer of verbal enjoyment that precedes la langue that is learnt at school. He rewrites Freud’s concept of the unconscious using linguistic terminology and posits three orders or rather stages of human mental disposition namely:
1. the imaginary order
2. the symbolic order
3. and the realThe imaginary order is pre-Oedipal where the infant is unable to distinguish itself as separate from the mother’s body or even to recognize the demarcation between its own self and the environment around as it does not know itself to be a separate entity. Thus, the imaginary phase is one of unity between the infant and its surroundings and also of the mother who is considered to be its immediate possession and also object around it. The world consists wholly of images and so ‘imaginary’ in nature where there is a general feeling of plentitude. The world is perceived to be not fragmented or mediated by differences or categories which mean words, language and signs are not part of the mental makeup at this point.
It is the mirror phase when the child can recognize itself and its environment in the mirror that marks the point where the comfort of this imaginary order breaks down leading the child into the symbolic order. The symbolic order is a world that consists of pre-defined social roles and gender differences and also a world of subjects and objects; thus, language.Lacan’ s approach to Freud’s theories was through Ferdinand De Saussure and Roman Jakobson’s works for he found that this brought into new ways of thinking. Though he was primarily interested in paranoia and erotomania, he was later much influenced by Kojeve’s ability to read a text in opposition to its critical reception.
According to Lacan, the unconscious is not a place but is a relation to the social world consisting of law and order, religion, morality and conscience. The child internalizes the father’s commands (Law of the Father) and the appropriate standards of socially acceptable thought and behavior as well as the repression of the desire for incest.Desire and Discourse
The infant in the first months of life is dominated by the mother or maternal object through part objects that form the basis of a fantasy in particular, the breast and the phallus. Akin to Freud, Lacan too believes that the primordial love object is lost or placed out of reach due to the culture and society (law against incest). The imaginary stage is where the ego first meets with opposition and love, hate and ignorance surface. On perceiving itself fin the mirror there is jubilation on recognition of its image which is succeeded by pain when the image is perceived to be not real but fake. Thus, the image in the mirror stands for the first mediator and other while one spends most of one’s life searching for the unity and identification which was lost on realization that the mirror image was just an image.
“The projecting space of mirrors has been used literally and metaphorically in literature for years. In Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ the novel is based in the specular image being transformed to the social ‘I’. The Symbolic is the last step of the mirror stage where narcissism ends.“Lacan, reverses Saussure’s graph of signified over signifier and gives the mirror image the designation of being a signifier that represents the subject for yet another signifier as the signified is of secondary importance here and so from ‘I am the breast/penis’ the child progresses to ‘I am called X’.
Due to the feeling of unity that is broken by the emergence of the symbolic stage the child progresses through an infinite chain of signifiers searching for unity with self and thus, the phallus is a signifier both sexually and arbitrarily as the Real can never be described for it exists beyond signification as the real is impossible and before language only thinghood can exist.Name of the Father
Symbolization effectively does the way with the illusion of unity of self with the mirror image and so one is alienated while the signifier causes further separation and so on the physical or bodily level there is a separation followed by one in speech as the encounter between the signifier and signified is missed. The ego is thus, bound to the signifier ‘X – the name’ and must renounce the oneness it felt with the maternal object, learn estrangement for the child learns that the universe does not revolve around it and must also learn the norms and rules imposed by the father and social order.The Purloined Letter
Lacan through this short story by Edgar Allen Poe, points out that a text can be read even if a major piece of information is not given to the reader which is important to psychoanalysis too which follows a narrative analysis pattern. The presumptions of the characters are what make the letter so important. Here, we have the repetition compulsion which Lacan transforms into the “repetition automatism”. We are presented two different scenes where the same letter is stolen though the characters change and so their relations and actions shift in accord to the position of the letter. It is ultimately the letter’s position among the characters and not their psychology that determines what they will do.The purloined letter comes to be seen as a pure signifier for the displacement of the characters is determined by the letter. This is called “symbolic determination” by Lacan. The pure signifier functions as the point of articulation even if readers are not conscious of it even though the readers are not made fully aware of the contents of the letter; but the reader understands the repetition without knowing the contents.
Three dimensions of the psycheThe three orders or dimensions of the psyche are equally important for the development of subjectivity. The Real cannot be really defined as if it becomes an object of discourse it will have some form of associated meanings to someone and hence no longer be real for it becomes the ‘truth’. According to Lacan though we are used to the real it is the truth that we repress. The real can be said to be that what one is thinking about but doesn’t matter for since no one else knows it, it cannot disturb someone. Thus, in order to study the Real we have to study its effects on the Imaginary and the Symbolic.
The Imaginary is rooted in people’s fascination for a form. The founding moment for the Imaginary is the infant’s recognition of itself in the mirror and seeing its wholeness of form it forgets its weak physical state. Thus, the human self is first established through a fundamentally aesthetic recognition. The actual fact is that the self-image causing the identification and recognition is fictionous for this totality and autonomy of ‘I’ can never really established. The specular ‘I’ is that which is projected through the mirror where the child’s fragmented body is made whole and this precedes the social ‘I’.
The “Imaginary” dimension is constituted by the relation between the self and its image but it is called so because it involves an image and not because it is supposed to be unreal. The Symbolic on the other hand deals with symbolization where the body must translate itself in articulatable parts composed from learnt speech. The Symbolic is a dimension of articulation and not pointing or mere naming; it is composed of a structure of relations and not merely things.In the symbolic order the child’s entry into language is premature as the mirror stage occurs before the child’s actual acquisition of a sense of self and the mirror gives him a mirage of the maturation of his power or a feeling of self autonomy which does not in reality exist. The power seen by the child is a gestalt of the totality and so the mirror stage functions as an imago establishing a relationship between the child and its identity. Imago is an ancient Latin term which signifies image, likeness, copy.
In Freud’s conception it meant the impression made by parental strictures which were internalized by the child but for Lacan it is more of an assumption of an image which establishes the child’s relation to reality causing a motor discord. The ego for Lacan is not consisting of perception consciousness or the reality principle. He is more interested inmeconnaissance which implies a misinterpretation or misprion; the ego is not what Descartes thought it to be. It is not rational or coherent but rather given to misprision.Symbolic Structure of the Psyche
The desires in the unconscious can only be analysed by psychoanalysis in their effects. The unconscious for Lacan is not the Freudian hidden reservoir of repressed desires but a form of rhetorical energy designed both to disguise and to express primeval desires. For Lacan, the unconscious is much like a language which means it has a structure and speaks rhetorically through mediums like dreams, mistakes or symptoms. In psychoanalytic symptoms the body gives the signals that must be read by the analyst much like a literary critic reads a work of art.Lacan’s concept of signifier and signified
Saussure’s model of the linguistic sign has two parts, a signifier and a signified. A drawing of a tree in his example, can be associated with the signified or concept-image while the spoken word ‘tree’ would be the signifier or sound-image. Lacan takes the tree itself to be a form of cultural representation. Lacan challenges the three implications of a sign that (1) sign represents a thing (signs function individually and (3) there is no demarcation between signifier and signified.Lacan’s counter model is of two bathroom door that are identical except they are named ‘ladies’ and gentlemen’ respectively. The sign here is a structure where the reader has to fit his/her body for the doors are identical. The signs indicate where the reader should go and instate the law of sexual difference without explaining it. The signs create a difference where it previously didn’t exist as the doors remain the same but the signs demarcate the difference.
Lacan rewrites Saussure’s model of the sign as S/s. The “signifier” (S) marks the spot where the “signified” (s) has been struck off by the bar of regression which cannot be distinguished from the structuring functions of society and civilisation. Therefore, signs as per his criteria, systematically and unconsciously constitute all social codes, conventions and prohibitions and so we are constituted and accultured by signs. Even before we can commence speaking we have a myriad of signs speaking to us.Language and Lacan
There is a two way interaction between language and the individual speaking to it in the sense that language operates on an individual as much as an individual operates on language. We have to follows the sign and language speaks to us through them but in this process we face a crisis where we are split between our conscious self and the unconscious one that we try to deny and repress.Lacan thus, due to the power of the unconscious which he perceives, moves on to re-write Descarte’s “I think therefore I am” into an enigmatic self-estrangement: “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” To explain the rhetoric of this self-estrangement he places in parallels, Jakobson’s linguistic studies of metaphor and metonymy along with Freud’s distinction between condensation and displacement in the dream-work of the unconscious. According to Freud, an unconscious wish is by nature suppressed as it is seen to be forbidden and unacceptable. Therefore, it should navigate through the censorship of the ego if it is to be manifested.
This manifestation can only take place through blind or stand-in i.e. a metaphor ‘one word for another’ or through the chain of adjacent signifiers as in metonymy ‘word to word’.This displacement of the symbolic also brings on the ‘scandal of enunciation’ on the ego. Saussure underlines the fact that words never capture the essence and so what is spoken along with the grammatical twists can no longer trick one and so leading to: I never know whether I am the same as that of which I speak was changed by Descartes to ‘I think, therefore I am’ and further modified by Lacan to ‘I think: therefore I am”.
Actually this may in itself be a manifestation of the mirror stage or the proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ which grounds existence in thought and that man’s thinking is what leads to the essence of his being but such presumption of thought or consciousness causes a feeling of coherent unity and the ego is granted an illusion of autonomy as the child first comes to see himself and his relation to the environment.Considering the unconscious, Lacan found it to be a product of the signifying system and was in itself a signifying system just like the conscious mind as they both are open, deferent, change definition and have a system of relations.
Language and desireLacan questions Freud’s stress on the phallus and the concept of castration for it is impossible to believe that women are castrated or that little boys truly fear castration. Freud explains away physical differences through these theories but for Lacan they fail to make complete sense. To him it is the functions of language and desire that matter more.
“As soon as man begins to speak (there is no getting away from the masculine universal in Lacan), he must launder everything important or even routine about his bodily life through linguistic structures that don’t exactly correspond to biological requirements.”Desire by Lacan’s definition is something that can never be satisfied. Linguistic structures are not created by an individual, they preexist. The ‘Other’ is actually evoked by the recourse of speech while the ‘other’ is the image in the mirror, another person or competitor. The ‘Other’ on the other hand is a part of the symbolic dimension. When a person speaks, everything is organized around the concept of this ‘Other’. The concept of castration emerges when the a person feels that some part of the body is missing which is called in Lacan’s terms as ‘objet petit’ or ‘object little o’. It is the symbolization which makes the subject realize the loss of this object which was in reality never a part of the subject.
This would be universal castration which would completely do away with sexual difference as there is no specific part being cut-off or rendered missing. But specific castration does emerge later when sexual difference is encountered. The castration which is of prime importance is that of a symbolic level referred to as a symbolic castration of the mother. The mother is no longer the ‘all’ of the child or her sole role in the environment is not that as a part of the child only. She has other relationships too. The ‘name of the father’ is actually the instatement of language and social norms that the father does through the prohibition of incest.The phallic stage as absent
Thus, in Lacan’s conceptualization, the phallic stage never exists as what is perceived to be castrated never in truth existed in reality. The feeling of missing a limb exists without it ever have been present and so it is an interpretation. theory or comparison but not an actual thing. The phallus is a signifier that stands for the ‘missing object’ and there really is no signified only the signification which is seen in the perceived sexual difference which is based on an interpretation.In Lacan’s view, there cannot exist any complementation within the relationship between the two sexes as the sexes are not complementary. They do not make a whole as the concept of woman existing as a completion to the phallic centric universe is impossible. God here forms the Other and is seen to have the made the two for cohabitation though in reality there cannot exist any completion. Patriarchy is taken to be a given in Lacan’s theory which is as phallocentric as Freud’s but his conclusion is what unseats this phhalocentricity. To think that women subsist for more than physical completion with the male and that the sexes were not made to be a perfect fit changes the concept of the phallus being the sun of the universe.
The phallus is merely a symbol of loss whether the individual is male or female for the complete unity with self is never possible and so the phallus signifies what cannot be ever had.Language and its Structure
Language and its structure exist before the moment when the individual first makes his entry into it. Language is not innate as the individual is not born with it nor is it having a behavoural basis. Lacan talks of the subject as “the slave of language” and his place is given before birth so the language constitutes the subject. An individual cannot govern or control language nor can there be meaningful experiences that are prelinguistic. No signification can be sustained without reference and it would be an illusion to think that the signifier answers to the function of representing the signified.The signifiers are within a synchronic system with phonemes being their elements for they are the smallest unit of sound. There is no linear relation between the signified and signifier as all human experience runs counter to it and so the chain of discourse as linear can only apply to the temporal dimension.