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Monday, October 31, 2022

The Unconscious is Structured Like a Language-Jacques Lacan | Litgalaxy2019

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst remarked that the unconscious is structured like a language. He published a collection of his papers and seminars in 1964 in Paris named as “Écrits” along with the four fundamental important concepts of psychoanalysis which influenced both the feminists and poststructuralist theories. 

These theories were actually three lectures delivered to graduate-level students. Lacan’s work “Écrits” earned for him name and fame in the literary sphere.

The Unconscious is Structured Like a Language-Jacques Lacan
The Unconscious is Structured Like a Language-Jacques Lacan


Lacan has mingled Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis with the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Émile Benveniste, a French structural linguist and semiotician. Jacques Lacan has changed the countenance of the psychoanalytic theory after Sigmund Freud. 

Though Lacan’s theories are complex, and difficult to understand, they have their own value in the arena of literary theory. Shoshana Felman, an American literary critic remarked, “Lacanian psychoanalysis is praxis, a method, and a theory.”


The Unconscious is the Discourse of the Other

According to Jacques Lacan, all human desires and wishes are linked to some sort of lack or absence. In fact, the absence or lack is desire. For example, when a baby is aware that it is separate from his mother, the idea of ‘other’ becomes significant and vital. The sense of ‘other’ takes place with the awareness of a baby that it is different and separate from his mother. This feeling of ‘otherness’ and separation gives birth to anxiety, a sense of loss. 

It is important to note that Lacan turns to linguistics {Ferdinand de Saussure} at this point. He asserts that all signifiers hint at this sense at ‘otherness’ or lack. When we try to comprehend the meaning of any signifiers; it points at some another signifiers. It gives no idea of the ‘signified’ or the ‘concept’. 

For Lacan, it is only a chain of signifiers, and actually there is no presence of any ‘signified’. Owing to this lack of signified, this stream of signifiers is constantly changing and shifting. There is no proper anchor to form stability in order to fathom the depth of meaning. 

The human desires, wishes, and dreams dwell in the unconscious which produce a chain of signifiers which constantly floats in the unconscious. For example, a baby pines for a reunion with his mother and feels lack of completeness or wholeness. But the baby has to separate from his other in order to form his own identity in order to enter into a social system. In this way, the baby becomes a separate individual of the society. 

The baby’s desires for wholeness and reunion remain unfulfilled and it resides in his unconscious. His separation with his mother imparts a child a kind of language which is therefore always associated with the loss and feeling of separation. The desire of a mother’s language is itself about this loss and sense of unfulfilled desire. Only signifiers do not convey an absolute meaning; and they come to mind as a series of some other signifiers, appearing on the surface one after another without a final meaning {signified}. 

Elizabeth Wright remarks, “Language imposes a chain of words along which the ego must move while the unconscious remains in search of the object it has lost.” 

With this Jacques Lacan relates language with desire and the unconscious. In the unconscious desire is structured like a language. Here the signifier: mother stands in contrast with the signified: Mother that the child will never get. In brief, the unconscious gives the child a signifier: mother to the absence and to the child’s desire for Mother {signified}. 

Actually the child seeks the Mother {signified} but he will never get it. The unconscious thus develops a language. Thus the language comes from the outside. The unconscious is not chaotic and jumbled and it is full of repressed desires and wishes. 

Lacan and Saussure:

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the relationship between a word and a physical object is arbitrary and it not inherent. But it is maintained by social agreement and convention. Saussure pointed out that we recognize one signifier from the other due to differences in them. Lacan thinks that the unconscious holds only signifier that refers to some other signifier whereas Saussure in his work “Course in General Linguistics” {1916} states that a sign is a combination of a signifier and a signified. 

According to Lacan, each signifier has meaning because there is difference in each signifier. Each signifier differs from the other. He states that a signifier merely refers to itself; and it does not refer to anything else outside it. The absence of signified deprives the system of firmness and stability. 

In this way, the unconscious is filled with constantly changing and shifting signifiers without any hurdle of signified which can stop their constant flow. The signifiers have no definite meaning which makes them unstable and indefinite. The signified,, as Lacan asserts, seem to be the real thing but actually they are not in our control. So the signified is only a ‘conceptualize reality’. 

Language becomes independent of what is ‘external to it; and we cannot go beyond it. We can only stabilize and cease this system so that meaning and ‘self’ become possible.

Lacan and Sigmund Freud:

Lacan states that analysts study language as a means of understanding the unconscious. He further says that Sigmund Freud employed two terms, condensation and displacement as a part of dream in his work “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899). They are quite similar to metaphor and metonymy respectively. 


The term condensation has been used by Freud in order to study the workings of the unconscious in which an image or a single word represents the intersections of a number of ideas of associations in a dream. In brief, condensation is a process by which various images and events are represented by a single image in a dream. 

Sigmund Freud employed another term, displacement which refers to the workings of the unconscious that is similar to metonymy. It refers to the process of moving emotions that are related to an idea or person to a less important object. In displacement, one image and event is represented by another. It is a symbolic substitution. Our dreams communicate indirectly and obliquely like literary works. 


Thus, the unconscious is a linguistic effect that exists before the individual gets into it, leaving it open to study and analysis. If the linguistic system is extant before the individual enters into it, however, there can be no unique self.  Lacan formulated the fundamental role played by language in the formation of human identity. According to Lacan, human beings are driven mainly by desires and wishes.

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