jacques lacanOverview

Lacan refashioned Freudian psychiatry, and suggested that the unconscious was structured like a language, thereby giving a key role to semiotics and dissolving the usual boundaries between the rational and irrational.

Though without foundation, the view supported many aspects of Postmodernism, and is therefore attractive to those fighting repression in western society.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81) tried to give Freud a contemporary intellectual significance, extricating his thought from the gloss of later commentators, and extending it in ways suggested but not achieved by Freud himself. The unconscious was not Freud's great contribution to European thought, but his discovery that the unconscious had a structure. That structure, continued Lacan, is a discourse that operates across the unconscious-conscious divide. Lacan's terminology is fluid, not to say elusive, but he adopts Freud's trinity of id, ego and superego. But Lacan argues that our continual attempt to fashion a stable, ideal ego throughout our adult lives is self-defeating. Certainly we can recognize a 'subject', ourselves, provided we remember that this centre of our being is not a fixed entity, but simply something that mediates our inner discourses. That 'subject' is made and remade in our confrontation with the Other, a concept which in turn shifts with context. The Other is the father within the Oedipal triangle who forbids incest. The Other is ourselves as we accept the restraints of adulthood. And the Other is also that which speaks across the schism we carry within ourselves between the unconscious and conscious — naturally: it is bound up with language itself. {1}

Lacan's theories are difficult to grasp, but extend psychoanalytical thought in several directions. Lacan's unconscious is structured like a language, which gives language a key role in constructing our picture of the world, but also allows the unconscious to enter into that understanding and dissolve essential distinctions between fantasy and reality. There are no primordial archetypes (Jung) or entities beyond the reach of language (Freud) or logical-sensorimotor structures (Piaget). As do other psychoanalysts, Lacan sees mental illness as a product of early childhood difficulties (notably imbalance between the Imaginary and the Symbolic) but children progressively gain a self-identity by passing through pre-mirror, mirror and post-mirror stages of development. {2}

More importantly, Lacan's language referred to itself and was to be read by Saussurean semiotics. To the extent that Lacan sees language, and indeed all discourse, as permeated by the unconscious and so lacking in truth or stability, he is a Poststructuralist.

From his first work (De la Psychose Paranoiaque dans ses Rapports avec la Personalité: 1932), Lacan represented psychological illness as something manifested by the whole person rather than as a distinct pathology. Continuing this approach, Lacan adopted a style which resists any neat summary of concepts. His prose may often resemble the speech of his patients: a free association of ideas, meanings that change with context, and an unwillingness to group under broader categories. Lacan's concepts do not condense into doctrines. However confusing, the intention is to draw in and implicate the reader in the suggestions that Lacan is drawing from Freud's work and patient behaviour. {3}

Lacan also had a trinity of his own: the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Real is the unnamable, the outside of language. The Imaginary is the undifferentiated early state of the child, a fusion of subject and parent, which remains latent in adult life, manifesting when we falsely identify with others. The Symbolic is the demarcated world of the adult with its enforced distinctions and repressions. The unconscious is not simply reflected in the language we use, but is equally controlled by it. Discourse, including social, public language, shapes and enters into the structure of the unconscious, and is inextricably mixed with the unsatisfied sexual desire that emerges disguised in dreams, jokes and art. {4}


Lacan replaced Freud's postulated oral, anal and genital stages of child development with his own pre-mirror, mirror and post-mirror stages. During its first six months of existence, the child gradually fills the gap between bodily sensations and its perceptions of the outside world with symbols: fantasies with which its consciousness is merged. Then, over the next year or so, the child begins to recognize the outside as an extension or mirror of its own bodily image, absorbing at the same time an awareness of outside language: the meaning of the Other. But in the next, post-mirror stage, when the child begins to speak for itself, these traces of meaning are repressed because they represent something from the child has separated. But desire remains, hedged about by prohibitions and compromises, into adulthood, and provides the Id with its own logic, language and intentionality. From this early stage too comes any neurosis or psychosis that the adult may subsequently suffer from, these resulting from imbalances between the Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real. {5}

Dreams (and by extension the matters that control art and our emotional processes) form a system of signs which we can read as any other text. We analyze them in Saussure's manner with signified and signifier. We use Jacobson's system of metaphor to understand the frequent combination of dream images, and metonymy to characterize displacement, the process by which images shift laterally in their significance. But whereas for Saussure the sign was culturally fixed, bonding signified and signifier, for Lacan the language of the unconscious (dreams, verbal plays and art) lacked any such stability. Language does not mimic the psychic processes of the unconscious, any reference it makes being entirely arbitrary. Language does not represent the exterior world, moreover, though of course we pretend otherwise. Words as patients use them in Freudian analysis take on multiple meanings, reach back to a plurality of determining factors, and are available permanently for new uses. So is language, our everyday social language. We cannot understand it from the outside, in terms other than language. And we cannot insulated it from the discourse of the unconscious. By its very nature, language forms a web of ever-elusive meaning, a free creation which provides no stability, ground or ultimate truth, even for itself. {6}

But that is not unexpected, thought Lacan. We can hear the polyphony of contexts when we listen to poetry, a discourse where the words or signifiers align vertically and horizontally as musical notes along a score. The overlapping and knotting together of its signifiers provides the reader of that text with an enactment of the unconscious. We cannot ultimately separate them, but poetry and the unconscious do support each other. Lacan had many contacts with Surrealism, and perhaps the exhibitionism, circularity and even charlatanry of his writings witness more truth to the unconscious than are to be found in the sober reflections of his contemporaries.


Lacan was a perplexity, even to his own profession. {8} The mirror stage is pure supposition. Speech, according to Freud, appears with the Oedipus complex, and thus much later than Lacan's model would allow. Tallis, whose training is in medicine, is very dismissive. {9} The unconscious is not structured like a language, not on the evidence to date.{10} There is no room in Lacan for individual experience, and documentation by case history is very poor. {11}

Lacan's thought as summarized above is very much a simplification, with many inconsistencies and obscurities removed. But Lacan's concept of a split in consciousness as we enter adulthood was attractive to those contesting the "closure" and single viewpoints of traditional literature. {12} Lacan's unconscious, which permeates all discourse, and thus undermines all the supposed stabilities of social and public life, was employed by left-wing thinkers viewing modern capitalism as repressive and irrational. Much has passed into history, and we should see Lacan in context — in flight from a Catholic background, friendly through his wife with the Surrealists, applying his own brand of Freudianism to the events of May 1968 and beyond. But despite the dubious nature of Lacan's concept, his influence lives on. Alienation in modern life, it is argued, comes not only from capitalism, but because we are inevitably alienated on entering the Symbolic realm of public language. In the deepest possible way, we were split at the source of gender. The Imaginary realm of the fused and fluid corresponded to the feminine, but once we employ public language we are thrown into a masculine world of order, identity, coherence and prohibition, a theme taken up by feminist critics. {13}

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1. Jacques Lacan's Ecrits (1966), pp. 353-356 of Oswald Ducret and Tzvetan Todorov's Sciences of Language (19790), pp. 186-7 of J. Teichman and G. White's (Eds.) An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995), John Muller and William Richardson's Lacan and Language: A Reader's Guide to Ecrits. (1994) and Ben Stoltzfus's Lacan and Literature: Purloined Texts (1996).
2. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan's Jacques Lacan, Literary Theory, and 'The Maids' of Jean Genet (1984). Also Alan Stone's Jacques Lacan in Jessica Kuper's A Lexicon of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1988)
3. J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Straus to Derrida (1984).
4. Ibid.
5. Ragland-Sullivan 1984.
6. Sturrock 1984.
7. Ibid.
8. p. 149 of J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), pp. 84-7 of Raman Seldon's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1989) and Alan Stone's Jacques Lacan in Jessica Kuper's A Lexicon of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1988). Also Sturrock 1984.
9. p. 121 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English (1990). Also Chapter 5 of Raymond Tallis's Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (1988, 1995).
10. p.150 of Merquior 1968.
11. p. 153 of Merquior 1968.
12. pp. 64-65 and pp. 136-143 of Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (1980).
13. p.149 of Merquior 1968, and pp.186-91 of Teichman and White 1995.  

Internet Resources

1. Jacques Lacan. Jan. 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lacan. Brief Wikipedia article, with a few links.
2. Lacan. Josefina Ayerza. Jan. 2004. http://lacan.com/. Rich and attractive site covering most aspects of Lacan and his work.
3. Who is Jacques Lacan? John Haber. http://www.haberarts.com/lacan.htm. Introduction by a New York art crtic.
4. Lacan Lectures. Tom Davis. http://www.bham.ac.uk/english/bibliography/
CurrentCourses/Freud/Lacan2Lecture/. University of Birmingham course notes. NNA
5. Jacques Lacan. Mary Klages. Oct. 2001. http://www.colorado.edu/English/
ENGL2012Klages/lacan.html. Detailed course notes. NNA
6. Jacques Lacan. Michael Cark. 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/ books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/jacques_lacan.html. JHG entry: detailed, with good bibliography but few links.
7. Lacan's Return: Reading and Paranoia. Hilary Clark. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/epc/srb/srb/lacan.html. Reviews of c. 1992 books on Lacan in SRB archives.
8. . Jacques Lacan. http://www.epistemelinks.com/Main/ Philosophers.aspx?PhilCode=Laca. Short listings
9. Psychoanalysis: Relevant Links. Jun. 1999. http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/
. Part of a good set of links at the Ju Fen University site.