On the Subject of Discourse

by John Gather

1. Introduction

Jacques Lacan is pro­bab­ly the most important psy­cho­ana­ly­tic thin­ker sin­ce Freud, and cer­tain­ly the most con­tro­ver­si­al. It is often said that a lar­ge part of the con­tro­ver­sy sur­roun­ding Lacan’s works is due to the extre­me com­ple­xi­ty of his use of lan­guage, which would ren­der tho­se works inac­ces­si­ble, not only to the lay rea­der, but also to expert readerships.

The pro­po­si­ti­on I intend to deve­lop in this paper, howe­ver, is that Lacan’s lin­gu­is­tic com­ple­xi­ty is necessa­ry con­se­quence of his theo­re­ti­cal stan­ces, and that any attempts to ren­der Lacan’s theo­ries in “sci­en­ti­fic” lan­guage will inva­ria­b­ly lead to mis­re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ons of psychoanalysis.

In order to pre­sent my argu­ment, I shall app­ly two clus­ters of theo­ry to each other, which can be seen as para­digms of Lacan’s theo­re­ti­cal sub­t­le­ties. Namely, I shall make an attempt to dis­cuss Lacan’s model of the four dis­cour­se types in terms of the regis­ters of the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. I shall begin by pre­sen­ting the two issu­es sepa­r­ate­ly, in a way that will enab­le me to intro­du­ce Lacan’s ter­mi­no­lo­gy. Having done so, I shall view the dis­cour­se model in the per­spec­ti­ve of the three regis­ters. This ana­ly­sis will pro­vi­de a fresh insight, I belie­ve, into the impli­ca­ti­ons of Lacan’s style.

2. Imaginary, Symbolic and Real

2.1 The Mirror Stadium and the Theory of the Imaginary

Marienbad (Germany), August 3, 1936. Jacques Lacan deli­vers the first ver­si­on of his paper, The Mirror Stadium, to the four­te­enth International Psychoanalytical Congress. The moment is cru­cial, for it signals Lacan’s depar­tu­re from psych­ia­try and his ent­ran­ce in psy­cho­ana­ly­sis: the focus of inves­ti­ga­ti­on shifts from the individual’s beha­vio­ral pat­terns onto sub­jec­ti­vi­ty and the for­ma­ti­on of the ego.

Even though Lacan would not for­mal­ly intro­du­ce the dis­tinc­tion bet­ween the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real regis­ters until 1953, a rela­ted – if more cru­de – dif­fe­ren­tia­ti­on can be dis­cer­ned in Lacan’s thoughts.

The Mirror Stadium1 exami­nes the ludic inte­rest that the child dis­plays for its spe­cu­lar image bet­ween the ages of six and eigh­teen mon­ths. Lacan departs form Bolk’s beha­vio­ral deve­lo­p­ment theo­ry2, accord­ing to which humans are phy­sio­lo­gi­cal­ly pre­ma­tu­re at their birth, with the ensuing vul­nera­bi­li­ty and depen­dence upon others for sur­vi­val. The child expe­ri­en­ces this con­di­ti­on as an intra-orga­nic dis­cordance. According to Lacan, then, if the child expres­ses jubi­la­ti­on upon reco­gni­zing its image in the mir­ror, it is becau­se in the­re it anti­ci­pa­tes its own com­ple­ti­on. The spe­cu­lar image is doubt­less­ly the child’s, but it is at the same time an other’s, sin­ce the child its­elf is in defi­cit with respect to it. Due to this inter­val, the mir­ror image cap­tures the child, who iden­ti­fies with it. Lacan’s main con­cern with this phe­no­me­non is not cen­te­red on the fact that the child obser­ves, nor on the idea of sta­di­um, but rather on the natu­re of the child’s inte­rest. The child’s play­ful­ness might perhaps appe­ar to anti­ci­pa­te the attain­ment of a won­der­ful sta­te of adult intel­li­gence; Lacan, howe­ver, is ada­mant in his oppo­sing any pro­spects of this kind. In con­trast with the chim­pan­zee, which loo­ses all inte­rest in its mir­ror image upon reco­gni­zing it as its own, the child has a per­ver­se will to remain deluded.

The child’s atten­ti­on is caught (capté) by his or her spa­ti­al rela­ti­ons with the mir­ror image in a two­fold way – the spa­ti­al inter­val bet­ween the body and its mir­ror image on one hand, and on the other hand bet­ween the mir­ror image and other objects wit­hin the vir­tu­al mir­ror-space. He or she is cap­ti­va­ted (cap­tivé) to the point of com­ple­te legal and moral cap­ti­va­ti­on. The mir­ror acts the­re­fo­re as a trap and a decoy; it pro­du­ces mira­ges rather than mere sen­so­ry images3.

Furthermore, Lacan tele­scopes the spe­cu­lai­re attri­bu­te of the image into the spec­ta­cu­lai­re4: the mir­ror beco­mes a specta­cle, and a par­ti­cu­lar moment of see­ing beco­mes emble­ma­tic for the act of see­ing at large.

Mirror and specta­cle, cor­re­la­ti­ves of iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on and fasci­na­ti­on, are the twin bounda­ry posts of what Lacan, from 1953 onward, would call the Imaginary register.

The ana­ly­sis of the mir­ror sta­di­um led Lacan to the idea of the ima­gi­na­ry alie­na­ti­on. The child iden­ti­fies its­elf with the image of an other, which in turn beco­mes con­sti­tu­ti­ve of the ego (moi) in man. Human for­ma­ti­on is punc­tua­ted by the­se ide­al iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons. Beyond the mere phy­sio­lo­gi­cal aspects, the Imaginary is inscri­bed in human development.

The theo­ry of the Imaginary enab­led Lacan to account for the ambi­va­lent aggres­si­on which cha­rac­te­ri­zes man’s rela­ti­on to his equal, per­cei­ved as someo­ne who might replace him. This is pre­cise­ly becau­se, based on the model of the mir­ror sta­di­um, the other is per­cei­ved as oneself. This theo­ry also exp­lains the para­no­id natu­re of the rela­ti­on of man to his object; para­no­id becau­se the object acqui­res impor­t­ance in as far as ano­t­her might dis­pu­te its pos­ses­si­on. At the same time, the hypo­the­sis of the Imaginary yiel­ds light upon the hys­te­ri­cal natu­re of human desi­re, in that it is always the desi­re of an other.

Rudimentary as it is, the theo­ry of the Imaginary reve­als nevertheless an approach to the ques­ti­on of the ego which is fun­da­ment­al­ly oppo­sed to that of the Anglo-Saxon schools of psy­cho­ana­ly­sis. For instance, while Lacan made his ent­ran­ce into psy­cho­ana­ly­sis through the for­mu­la­ti­on of the mir­ror sta­di­um, Hartmann in Chicago, and Kris and Löwenstein in New York, con­struc­ted an ent­i­re­ly dif­fe­rent theo­ry5 – a theo­ry which remains accep­ted in most Anglo-Saxon psy­cho­ana­ly­tic cir­cles until today. These aut­hors attemp­ted to re-inter­pret and uni­fy Freud’s theo­ry on the basis of the second Freudian topo­lo­gy, which dis­tin­guis­hes the instan­ces of the ego, the super-ego and the id. Within the theo­re­ti­cal frame deve­lo­ped upon this model, the ego would be the personality’s cen­tral instance, and it would pos­sess a func­tion of syn­the­sis. These theo­ries also assu­med the ego to ful­fill a pivo­tal func­tion, which the ana­lyst should re-enfor­ce in order to bring the pati­ent back to reality.

Instead, Lacan’s approach to the ego, from the theo­re­ti­cal frame­work of the mir­ror sta­di­um, leads to a very dif­fe­rent con­clu­si­on6. In this con­cep­ti­on, the ego is neit­her uni­fied, nor is it uni­fy­ing; it is pre­cise­ly the pre­ci­pi­ta­te, the sedi­ment pro­du­ced by the dis­or­der of ima­gi­na­ry iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons. During the cour­se of the cure, the­se ima­gi­na­ry iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons reap­pe­ar in con­se­cu­ti­ve order, which led Lacan to descri­be the psy­cho­ana­ly­tic tre­at­ment as a gui­ded para­noia. It can be said that the ego, in the spi­rit of Lacan, is in its ori­gin a trap, and its very natu­re pre­clu­des any noti­on of inte­gri­ty or unity.

Despite its cohe­rence, howe­ver, the theo­ry of the Imaginary lead Lacan to an impas­se jeo­par­di­zing both the theo­ry and the cli­nic: ima­gi­na­ry rela­ti­ons beco­me inva­ria­b­ly dest­ruc­ti­ve, exclu­si­ve rela­ti­ons, in which only “I” or “the other” can exist7. The nar­cis­sistic aggres­si­on which cha­rac­te­ri­zes ima­gi­na­ry rela­ti­ons stri­ves towards the attain­ment of a more or less sta­ble indi­vi­dua­li­ty. Because of the insub­stan­ti­al natu­re of the ego, howe­ver, this endea­vor is bound to fail. The empha­sis in Imaginary rela­ti­ons­hips lies with the alie­na­ti­on which func­tions as a bar­ri­er demar­ca­ting, and even defi­ning, the pre­ca­rious limits of the ego.

Imaginary rela­ti­ons­hips both defi­ne and link two or more indi­vi­du­als by means of the signs through which tho­se indi­vi­du­als repre­sent them­sel­ves. Schematically:

indi­vi­du­al1 → sign → indi­vi­du­al2

2.2 Beyond the Imaginary Impasse: the Theory of the Symbolic

In 1953, Lacan intro­du­ced the dis­junc­tion bet­ween the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Symbolic can be said to inclu­de two stra­ta: the stra­tum of the word and the stra­tum of lan­guage8. Whereas ima­gi­na­ry rela­ti­ons­hips, as descri­bed abo­ve, are cha­rac­te­ri­zed by rival­ry and dest­ruc­tion, Lacan sees a paci­fy­ing func­tion in the word. Like the sign, the word is also the means of iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons; but the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons media­ted by the word make it pos­si­ble to over­co­me the ima­gi­na­ry rival­ry. Lacan often refers to the word as the means of media­ti­on bet­ween the sub­jects. From the per­spec­ti­ve of the stra­tum of the word, the sym­ptom appears as a defect in sym­bo­liz­a­ti­on, which results in a cer­tain opa­ci­ty in the sub­ject. The psy­cho­ana­ly­tic cure is a fun­da­ment­al­ly inter­sub­jec­ti­ve pro­cess that enab­les the sub­ject to re-estab­lish the con­ti­nui­ty of his/her histo­ry, which the sym­ptom had inter­rup­ted. Lacan expres­sed this by say­ing that the uncon­scious is a cen­so­red chap­ter in the histo­ry of the sub­ject, to which the cure gives a retroac­ti­ve signification.

The stra­tum of lan­guage is also known as the Symbolic Order. This is a diacri­tic set of dis­cre­te and sepa­ra­te ele­ments, the signi­fiers, which acqui­re value only in rela­ti­on with each other; on their own, they are meaningless.

In several aspects, the stra­tum of lan­guage is the oppo­si­te of the stra­tum of the word. Whereas the stra­tum of the word pro­vi­des the signi­fi­ca­ti­on which enab­les the sub­ject to over­co­me the ima­gi­na­ry rival­ry, the stra­tum of lan­guage is made of non-sen­se. It can be said that Lacan’s focus shifted from the stra­tum of the word on to the stra­tum of lan­guage9.

At the Symbolic level, then, signi­fi­ca­ti­on emer­ges as the result of dif­fe­ren­ces. This implies that, for signi­fi­ca­ti­on to occur, the­re must be at least two ele­ments, signi­fiers, that dif­fer from each other wit­hin a diacri­tic net­work. In con­trast with the Imaginary, in which the ego iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons are pre­do­mi­nant, the Symbolic is the domain of the signi­fier. By means of a signi­fier S1, the sub­ject can repre­sent its­elf for ano­t­her signi­fier S2. Schematically:

sub­ject S → signi­fier S1 → signi­fier S2

Lacan’s theo­ry of the Symbolic ela­bo­ra­tes the dimen­si­on com­mon to the­se two stra­ta. Three dif­fe­rent aspects of this theo­ry deser­ve some attention.

Firstly, Lacan revi­sed the par­al­le­lism de Saussure pos­tu­la­ted bet­ween signi­fier and signi­fied, and insis­ted that the signi­fier ope­ra­tes upon the signi­fied, oppo­sing thus the the­sis that the signi­fier would sim­ply ser­ve to express the signi­fied. Lacan’s the­sis is that the signi­fier acts upon the signi­fied, and in a radi­cal sen­se it even crea­tes the signi­fied. All signi­fi­ca­ti­on is crea­ted from the non-sen­se of the signifier.

Secondly, Lacan intro­du­ced the noti­on of signi­fy­ing chain in order to account for the over­de­ter­mi­na­ti­on in which, like Freud, he saw the con­di­ti­on for any for­ma­ti­on of the uncon­scious. Concepts such as the repe­ti­ti­on auto­ma­tism and the death dri­ve, which Freud intro­du­ced, requi­re ade­qua­te explana­ti­ons. Lacan empha­si­zes that the repe­ti­ti­on auto­ma­tism, as descri­bed by Freud, is the vehi­cle of an inde­li­ble track; the uncon­scious is con­sti­tu­ted by that track, of which the sub­ject can­not rid himself.

Thirdly, the ent­i­re struc­tu­re of the Symbolic func­tions as a term. Lacan empha­si­zes that the rela­ti­on bet­ween the struc­tu­re and the sub­ject is to be dis­tin­guis­hed from the ima­gi­na­ry rela­ti­ons­hip bet­ween the ego and the other. To this end, he intro­du­ced the nota­ti­on of the Other (Autre), as oppo­sed to the “other” which is reci­pro­cal, sym­metric of the ima­gi­na­ry ego.

The noti­on of the Other has several func­tions in Lacan’s theo­ry. It is, in the first place, the Great Other of lan­guage which is always alrea­dy the­re. It is the Other of the uni­ver­sal dis­cour­se, of ever­ything that has been said in so far it is con­ceiva­ble. It is also the Other of truth, which is a third par­ty in any dia­lo­gue; becau­se in the dia­lo­gue bet­ween one and ano­t­her the­re is always that which func­tions as refe­rence as much in agree­ment as in dis­agree­ment. Finally, the Other is a dimen­si­on of exte­rio­ri­ty that has a deter­mi­ning func­tion for the sub­ject: it is the Other whe­re the uncon­scious desi­re originates.

2.3 A Word about the Real as Barrier for Subject and Ego

One of Lacan’s most exten­si­ve accounts of the Real is to be found in the fifth chap­ter of his semi­nar of 1963–196410. He cen­ters his pre­sen­ta­ti­on on two terms, τύχη and αυτόματόν, as used by Aristotle in the second book of Physics. Lacan ren­ders τύχη as the “encoun­ter with the real” that lies bey­ond the αυτόματόν, “the return, the com­ing back, the insis­tence of the signs, by which we see our­sel­ves gover­ned by the plea­su­re princip­le”11.

Because the Real lies bey­ond the repe­ti­ti­on of the signs, its power super­se­des the alrea­dy qui­te con­si­derable power Lacan ascri­bes to the Symbolic. The actu­al cha­rac­te­riz­a­ti­on Lacan gives for the Real is qui­te often in nega­ti­ve terms, i.e. “the litt­le we know about the real shows its anti­mo­ny to all verisi­mi­li­tu­de”12. The effect of the Real upon the psy­che can be best descri­bed as trau­ma, a rup­tu­re in the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­ons of the Imaginary and in the fab­ric of the Symbolic.

3. Language, Subject & Social Bonds: Lacan’s Discourse Model

In Het Ik en de psy­cho­lo­gie der mas­sa.13 Freud attemp­ted to exp­lain the pro­ces­ses of group-for­ma­ti­on – the hori­zon­tal bond lin­king the mem­bers of the group – on the basis of the ver­ti­cal bond bet­ween each mem­ber and the lea­der of the group. Freud stu­di­ed the bond bet­ween the mem­bers in terms of the mecha­nisms resul­ting from their iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on with each other vis-á-vis their rela­ti­on with the lea­der. Instead, Lacan found inspi­ra­ti­on in lin­gu­is­tics and anthropology.

3.1 Post-Freudian Sources

Lacan’s refor­mu­la­ti­ons of Freudian theo­ries stem from the basic hypo­the­sis that the uncon­scious is struc­tu­red like a lan­guage. His refe­ren­ces to lin­gu­is­tics can be retraced to Jakobson and de Saussure, and to a les­ser degree, Benveniste; Lacan’s anthro­po­lo­gi­cal sources stem from Lévi-Strauss’ struc­tu­ral anthropology.

3.1.1 de Saussure and Lévi-Strauss

Based on de Saussure Lacan employs the noti­ons of signi­fier – alt­hough, as we have seen, not without modi­fi­ca­ti­ons – and of lan­gue, the diacri­tic set of ele­ments which acqui­re signi­fi­ca­ti­on in rela­ti­on to each other. By mer­ging the Saussurean con­cept of lan­gue with the kin­ship restric­tions descri­bed in the works of Lévi-Strauss – with incest pro­hi­bi­ti­on as pri­vi­le­ged law14. Lacan obtai­ned an out­line of his noti­on of the Symbolic order. In Lacan’s dis­cour­se model, the ent­i­re body of know­ledge, rules and restric­tions encom­pas­sed by the Symbolic order make their appearan­ce as the cor­pus of savoir, sym­bo­li­zed as S2.

3.1.2 Benveniste

Benveniste had alrea­dy made the dis­tinc­tion bet­ween the “sujet de l’é­non­cia­ti­on” and the “sujet de l’é­non­cé”. The spea­ker is divi­ded by what he or she says: the “I” that speaks is not con­gru­ent with the “I” in what is spo­ken. Shifters and spea­king sub­jects don’t coincide.

In addi­ti­on, what remains unsaid divi­des the spea­ker, who can never ful­ly con­vey the mes­sa­ge becau­se words can not suf­fice: this is what Lacan calls the limit of the Real.15 At the same time the spea­king sub­ject says more than what was inten­ded and also says some­thing different.

3.1.3 Jakobson

Another source of cri­ti­cal impor­t­ance for Lacan’s dis­cour­se model are the wri­tings of Roman Jakobson, in par­ti­cu­lar his com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on theo­ry16. Jakobson dis­tin­guis­hes six func­tions which repre­sent dif­fe­rent instan­ces in the pro­cess of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on: “sen­der”, “recei­ver”, “con­ta­ct”, “code”, “con­text” and “mes­sa­ge”. These func­tions would con­vey a more or less sta­ble chart of the com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on pro­cess and the points at which it might falter.

But Freud’s works about the joke and the lap­sus show that merely lin­gu­is­tic or psy­cho­lo­gi­cal models do not suf­fice to ade­qua­te­ly cha­rac­te­ri­ze the role of the Symbolic in humans. For instance, Freud’s demons­tra­ti­on that the lap­sus can some­ti­mes be a most suc­cess­ful case of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, leads one to ques­ti­on the appar­ent­ly so self-evi­dent rela­ti­ons­hip bet­ween “sen­der” and “mes­sa­ge”. Indeed, in the lap­sus, but also in many other instan­ces of speech, it is not at all obvious that the sender’s inten­ti­on is univocal.

On the con­tra­ry, it is necessa­ry to speak of a num­ber of inten­ti­ons which are ope­ra­ti­ve next, bes­i­des, through, and even against the mes­sa­ge. And does the sen­der real­ly pos­sess a mes­sa­ge? Does he or she intend to app­ly a code to ren­der that mes­sa­ge con­vey­a­ble? And is that mes­sa­ge – and no other – the one that the sen­der real­ly inten­ded to con­vey? Does the sen­der pos­sess the code, or is he or she pos­ses­sed by it? And, as sen­der, is he or she not rather the recei­ver of the mes­sa­ge send by the code? Is he or she tru­ly able to decode the mes­sa­ge quick­ly, effi­ci­ent­ly and flaw­less­ly? If not, does­n’t he or she elect not to know anything about it? And whe­re is the inter­fe­rence: in the chan­nel, in the sen­der, or alrea­dy in the code itself?

Similar ques­ti­ons ari­se on the side of the recei­ver. In the first place, the code also speaks to him or her: the recei­ver is thus the code’s object. Also the recei­ver is hin­de­red by the inter­fe­rence pro­du­ced by the many inner messages which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly demand his or her atten­ti­on. Moreover, the recei­ver is also expo­sed to the ubi­qui­tous, often unplea­sant mes­sa­ge about him- or herself that the code sends. Neither is the receiver’s inten­ti­on to decode the sender’s mes­sa­ge uni­vo­cal or pure. The incar­na­ted code is not an abs­trac­tion; it is acqui­red through the strict­ly per­so­nal histo­ry. In turn, this modi­fies the way any ulte­rior mes­sa­ge is to be deco­ded; and the way any ques­ti­on to the code is to be posited.

A model inten­ded to pre­sent the phe­no­me­na of dis­cour­se must be able to inclu­de – rather than to resol­ve or eli­mi­na­te – the nuan­ces men­tio­ned above.

3.2.1 Discourse is not just Speech: Four Places

By incor­po­ra­ting phe­no­me­na of lan­guage that give tes­ti­mo­ny of the uncon­scious (dreams, jokes, para­pra­xes) into his dis­cour­se model, Lacan estab­lis­hes four basic dis­cur­si­ve fea­tures pri­or to and inde­pen­dent of any actu­al lin­gu­is­tic utter­an­ces. A dis­cour­se is by no means limi­ted to speech or wri­ting – the­re are also dis­cour­ses without words17 – but dis­cour­se and

lan­guage are intert­wi­ned: fun­da­men­tal rela­ti­ons sub­sis­ting in lan­guage fashion pos­si­ble social bonds and defi­ne pos­si­ble dis­cour­se types.

The truth dri­ves the agent of a dis­cour­se to speak to an other, in order to obtain a more or less visi­ble pro­duct. In pre­sen­ting the­se four func­tions along a syn­chro­nic sche­me, Lacan ren­ders each one of them as defi­ning a logi­cal place or topos:

The “sen­der” of Jakobson’s model is here only an appa­rent agent, dri­ven by an uncon­scious truth. This agent does not have direct access to the uncon­scious; on the con­tra­ry, it is its pawn. The con­tents of the uncon­scious can only be con­struc­ted in a frag­men­ta­ry way, and through the other. The “recei­ver” is divi­ded in the other who is spo­ken to and the effect taking place in his or her uncon­scious. The signi­fier divi­des both spea­ker and addres­see; the word fol­lows the­re­fo­re a path which is dou­bly arti­cu­la­ted through the uncon­scious. This results in a dou­ble dis­junc­tion bet­ween the pla­ces that has far reaching con­se­quen­ces for each dis­cour­se type. Lacan repres­ents this dou­ble dis­junc­tion by the arrow ( ) which repres­ents the rela­ti­on of impos­si­bi­li­ty bet­ween agent and other, and the dou­ble bar (//) repre­sen­ting the impo­tence bet­ween truth and product:

The dis­junc­tion bet­ween the truth and the pro­duct marks the bor­der of the dis­cour­se with the Real. We shall fur­ther cha­rac­te­ri­ze the natu­re of the­se dis­junc­tions when we descri­be each spe­ci­fic dis­cour­se type.

3.2.2 The Dynamics of Discourse: Four Terms

The sche­me of the four pla­ces – the truth, the agent, the other and the pro­duct – forms the basis of Lacan’s dis­cour­se model. Each of the pla­ces can be occu­p­ied by one of four terms, resul­ting each time in a dif­fe­rent dis­cour­se type.

A first ele­ment to take into account for the occup­a­ti­on of the four pla­ces is the signi­fier. As we have poin­ted out ear­lier, the signi­fiers are made of non­sen­se: they only signi­fy wit­hin diacri­tic oppositions.

For a signi­fier S1 to have a mea­ning, it must stand in oppo­si­ti­on to the rest of the set of signi­fiers which must con­sist in no less that one signi­fier other than S1. The who­le of the set of the signi­fiers, plus the anthro­po­lo­gi­cal restric­tions expres­sed by them is, as we have seen in 3.1.1., the sym­bo­lic order, which Lacan sym­bo­li­zes as S2.

This basic dyad S1 – S2 is, of cour­se, the pro­to­ty­pe for any fur­ther pos­si­ble pair of signi­fy­ing com­bi­na­ti­ons. A divi­ded sub­ject is repre­sen­ted by a signi­fier for ano­t­her signi­fier: sub­ject $ → signi­fier S1 → signi­fier S2.

In the mir­ror sta­di­um the pri­mor­di­al sub­ject (S) beco­mes divided ($).

However, the sub­ject is even­tual­ly con­fron­ted with the fact that the Symbolic order does not suc­ceed in ent­i­re­ly repla­cing the pri­mal sub­jec­ti­vi­ty and its jouis­sance18: the words do not suf­fice. The Symbolic order or Other is incom­ple­te, (Other/Autre = A) as it bears the trace of the trau­ma­tic Real19. The coun­ter­part of the lack in the Symbolic is the rest of the pri­mor­di­al sub­ject, the plus-de-jouir or objet petit (small object a = a). This rest “a” is the result/refuse of any given signi­fy­ing pro­cess: $ → S1 → S2 → a. These four ele­ments are the terms of the dis­cour­se. The petit object a resists all attempts to its full inte­gra­ti­on in the Symbolic order, so that an inces­sant dis­cur­si­ve chain results:

$ → S1 → S2 → a → $ → S1 → S2 → a → $ → S1 → S2 → a → $ → S1 → S2 → a .…

Since their sequence is fixed, only four dif­fe­rent groups of four ele­ments may be formed:

$ → S1 → S2 → a

S1 → S2 → a → $

S2 → a → $ → S1

a → $ → S1 → S2

3.2.3 Discourse Types and Registers

Lacan defi­nes dis­cour­se as a social bond media­ted by lan­guage. This gives weight to the use of the Symbolic. Like lan­guage its­elf, the dis­cur­si­ve struc­tures pre-exist the subject’s ent­ran­ce in lan­guage. The four dis­cour­se types can be obtai­ned by rota­ting the chain of four terms in their con­stant order, on the four pla­ces. The four resul­ting dis­cour­se types are the mas­ter, hys­te­ric, uni­ver­si­ta­ry and ana­ly­tic dis­cour­ses. For this paper, the mas­ter and ana­ly­tic inte­rest us most.

The first dis­cour­se type Lacan descri­bes is the mas­ter dis­cour­se20. The signi­fier S1 which repres­ents the sub­ject $, occu­p­ies the place of the agent: the Master pre­ten­ds to coin­ci­de with a uni­que signi­fier, which acti­va­tes the know­ledge con­tai­ned in the signi­fy­ing chain S2:

agent other

S1 → S2

The Master signi­fier at the place of the agent ser­ves to label the other. The most important cha­rac­te­ris­tic of the mas­ter-dis­cour­se is the reduc­tion of the other to a thing. But the posi­ti­on of the Master can only be main­tai­ned at the pri­ce of deny­ing sub­jec­ti­vi­ty as the dri­ving truth, and the­re­fo­re his own castration.

The jouis­sance remains inac­ces­si­ble for the Master: at the place of the pro­duct, it is in dis­junc­tion from the truth. To reach the object a, the Master would have to incor­po­ra­te his sub­jec­ti­vi­ty on the place of the agent; but that would mean the end of the Master discourse.

The hys­te­ric dis­cour­se emer­ges as an ans­wer to the mas­ter dis­cour­se. The split sub­ject in the place of the agent installs the mas­ter signi­fier in the place of the other and ques­ti­ons it about the jouis­sance: S → S1. But the mas­ter, as we have seen, can­not ans­wer that demand without loo­sing his/her posi­ti­on. Upon this fail­u­re, the hys­te­ric unmasks the mas­ter and decla­res him bankrupt. The know­ledge which is the result of this ope­ra­ti­on appears in the place of the product.

The struc­tu­re of the uni­ver­si­ta­ry dis­cour­se is the rever­se of the hysteric:

In the uni­ver­si­ta­ry dis­cour­se know­ledge, in the place of the agent, com­man­ds its own growth to con­ti­nue by end­less­ly dis­pla­cing the impersonal´objet a. The objec­ti­vi­ty of sci­en­ti­fic dis­cour­se cor­re­sponds to the exclu­si­on of the sub­ject from the signi­fy­ing rela­ti­on and the know­ledge func­tions without its repres­sed inau­gu­ral point: the inter­ven­ti­on of the mas­ter posi­t­ing basic axioms.

The oppo­si­te of the mas­ter dis­cour­se is the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se; to which we shall return later.

A lec­tu­re of the dis­cour­se types in terms of the regis­ters of the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real can shed some light on their natu­re. The two most obvious pla­ces of the dis­cour­se sche­me are the agent and the other: they come clo­sest to the noti­on of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on as deve­lo­ped by Jakobson. Obvious pla­ces means: they could be thought of without taking the uncon­scious into account. This takes us direct­ly to our first con­clu­si­on, name­ly: the rela­ti­ons­hip bet­ween the agent and the other (“impos­si­bi­li­ty”) belongs to the order of the Imaginary. In attemp­t­ing to reach the other direct­ly, the agent must first iden­ti­fy him/herself with the other. On the once hand, we see that once we take the uncon­scious into account, any rela­ti­on bet­ween the truth and the pro­duct is inter­rup­ted by the dou­ble arti­cu­la­ti­on we men­tio­ned ear­lier. We can thus eli­mi­na­te any pos­si­bi­li­ty of suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on bet­ween agent and other. The dis­junc­tion bet­ween the truth and the pro­duct (“impo­tence”) belongs to the Real, which is the regis­ter that has no access to the signifier.

The Symbolic is the regis­ter of the sub­ject.21 To ana­ly­ze the sym­bo­lic com­po­nent of the dis­cour­se type we will focus on the terms of the signi­fy­ing func­tion rather than on the pla­ces of the dis­cour­se. This is in accordance with Lacan’s defi­ni­ti­on of sub­ject: a sub­ject is repre­sen­ted by a signi­fier for ano­t­her signi­fier, $ → S1 → S2. Contrarily to the case of the Imaginary and the Real, this Symbolic tryad is loca­ted at dif­fe­rent pla­ces for each dis­cour­se type. In the mas­ter dis­cour­se, the two terms of the signi­fy­ing chain, S1 and S2 occu­py the upper half of the dia­gram. The split sub­ject in the place of the truth must remain repres­sed if the mas­ter dis­cour­se is to be main­tai­ned. In the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se S2 and S1 are divi­ded by the bar­ri­er of the Real, //. The emer­gence of the split sub­ject $ is rela­ted exclu­si­ve­ly to the reve­la­ti­on of the phal­lic signi­fier S1 by vir­tue of the objet a in the place of the agent. The restric­tions of the Symbolic order S2 are sus­pen­ded in the place of the truth.

4. Style

Lacan’s wri­tings pose a con­si­derable chal­len­ge to their rea­ders. The syn­ta­c­tic com­ple­xi­ty of many sen­ten­ces, writ­ten or spo­ken, results from pla­cing the object or objects at the begin­ning of the sen­tence and sus­pen­ding the sub­ject, often pas­si­ve, till the end of the sen­tence. This is a for­mal or sty­listic cor­re­spon­dence, we belie­ve, to the princip­le that the sub­ject is an effect of the signi­fy­ing rela­ti­on. More attempts to exp­lain the natu­re of their dif­fi­cul­ty, which we belie­ve worth men­tio­ning, are given by A. Mooij22. Mooij sees a three­fold func­tion in Lacan’s style: a bar­ri­er against mis­lea­ding sim­pli­fi­ca­ti­ons, a lis­tening exer­cise for psy­cho­ana­lysts and a prac­ti­cal illus­tra­ti­on of the gli­ding of the signi­fier. In addi­ti­on to the­se fine obser­va­tions, we shall approach the issue by pas­sing through a few of Lacan’s remarks on style and a reflec­tion upon the role of the object petit a in ana­ly­tic discourse.

Firstly, Lacan appears to take over Boileau’s princip­le, “ce que l’on con­co­it bien s’é­non­ce clai­re­ment”.23 But Lacan adds that what is clear­ly for­mu­la­ted gets through, makes its­elf unders­tood. Contrarily to Boileau, Lacan empha­si­zes that the­re is not much to be expec­ted from preli­mi­na­ry thin­king that attempts to find the cla­ri­ty of ide­as out­side their for­mu­la­ti­on in lan­guage. As an aut­hor has put it, “The school for thin­king is to learn how to for­mu­la­te cor­rect­ly. Not the other way around.”24

Secondly, Lacan opens his Écrits with a refe­rence to style. The very first sen­tence of the Ouverture de ce recueil reads “style is man hims­elf”, Buffon’s defi­ni­ti­on of style.25 In con­for­mi­ty with the the­sis, that the sub­ject recei­ves his mes­sa­ge from the Other in an inver­ted form, Lacan rephra­ses Buffon as “style is the man to whom one speaks”. The rephra­sing also stres­ses the impor­t­ance of the ima­gi­na­ry regis­ter for the ego. Every ori­gi­nal, per­so­nal style is based on a fun­da­men­tal mécon­nais­sance, ori­gi­na­ting in the alie­na­ti­on of the mir­ror sta­di­um. As J. Miller has infer­red, the sub­sti­tu­ti­on of “hims­elf” by “to whom one speaks” indi­ca­tes that iden­ti­ty is divi­ded bet­ween what style repres­ents and the one befo­re whom it is repre­sen­ted.”26

Thirdly, Lacan sta­tes with crystal­li­ne cla­ri­ty: “It is the object – the objet a – respon­ding to the ques­ti­on of style, that we assert as ent­ran­ce to the game. At the place that mar­ked man for Buffon, we call for the fall of that object, both as cau­se of desi­re … and as sup­port for the sub­ject bet­ween know­ledge and truth. Through the cour­se of which the­se wri­tings are mile­stones, and the style that their desti­na­ti­on com­man­ds, we want to take the rea­der to a con­se­quence whe­re he has to put some­thing of hims­elf”.27

The rele­van­ce of the respon­se of the objet a to the ques­ti­on of style leads to posit that nowhe­re can this be more evi­dent than in the psy­cho­ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se: the objet a occu­p­ies here the place of the agent.

The issue is pro­ble­ma­tic for a num­ber of rea­sons. The most obvious one is that the pri­vi­le­ged posi­ti­ons of the objet a and the split sub­ject are based on a sym­bo­lic dis­junc­tion: S2 // S1 means that eit­her the know­ledge or the mas­ter signi­fier can bear rele­van­ce, but not both. The con­se­quence of this is that style, wit­hin the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se, can never be a per­so­nal style (S1 → S2). Moreover, S2 // S1 also means that the know­ledge S2 does not have access to expres­si­on – which could only take place through S1.

Coherently with Lacan’s theo­ry, the sub­ver­si­on of his tea­ching is limi­ted to the field of lan­guage. Its most pro­vo­ca­ti­ve aspect lies in posing the most fun­da­men­tal ques­ti­ons without offe­ring. syn­the­tic view which would domi­na­te – and neu­tra­li­ze – the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se.28

For the same rea­son, wha­te­ver S1 expres­ses, it will not be a know­ledge. The style, the­re­fo­re, that the objet a gene­ra­tes in the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se can­not be the style of mas­te­ry, S1 → S2 . Neither is the act of edu­ca­ti­on, illus­tra­ted in the uni­ver­si­ta­ry dis­cour­se (S2 → a), sui­ta­ble to appre­hend the natu­re of the style of psy­cho­ana­ly­sis. In the uni­ver­si­ta­ry dis­cour­se the objet a occu­p­ies the place of the other as not-knowing, neces­si­ta­ting the input of know­ledge (S2) in order to ful­fill the impos­si­ble task of the incor­po­ra­ti­on – and domi­nan­ce – of the jouis­sance into the Symbolic.

Indeed, the rever­se side of the uni­ver­si­ta­ry dis­cour­se shows the signi­fier in dis­junc­tion with the sub­ject. S1 // $. Within this frame, the reve­aling effect of the signi­fier can­not take place for the subject.

Between the know­ledge of the ana­lyst – or, for that mat­ter, of the ana­ly­sand – and the phal­lic signi­fier the­re is the bar­ri­er of the Real //. The dif­fi­cul­ty of the style of psy­cho­ana­ly­sis is to be retraced, we belie­ve, in its dou­ble invol­ve­ment with the Real, which appears right at the cen­ter of the sym­bo­lic chain, and it is also indi­ca­ted by the pre­sence of the object a in the place of the agent. Indeed, as Lacan has poin­ted out, the posi­ti­on of the sub­ject in the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se is oppo­sed to any noti­on of mas­te­ry. The style of psy­cho­ana­ly­sis is born out only by the pro­duc­tion of the mas­ter signi­fier, which is the indi­ca­tor of the emer­gence of the split sub­ject $ by vir­tue of the action of the objet a.

5. Conclusion

Lacan’s dis­cour­se model offers an ent­i­re­ly novel insight, not only in psy­cho­ana­ly­sis, but also in the natu­re and use of lan­guage, and the cha­rac­ter of social bonds. The main limit impo­sed by the use of Lacan’s dis­cour­se model as a tool for inves­ti­ga­ti­on is that its strict for­ma­liz­a­ti­on severely restricts any pos­si­ble descrip­ti­on of the enor­mi­ty of nuan­ces in other fiel­ds – aes­the­tics for instance. On the other hand, we think that this is more than com­pen­sa­ted by the sub­t­le­ties that the app­li­ca­ti­on of the dis­cour­se model per­mits to dis­co­ver in unsu­spec­ted areas.

The phra­se, “style is the man to whom one speaks”, attains its full signi­fi­ca­ti­on wit­hin the ana­ly­tic dis­cour­se: the style of the objet a in the place of the agent can only be that of the split sub­ject S who is spo­ken to. In an unusu­al com­bi­na­ti­on, we find that a stron­gly for­mal instru­ment yiel­ds light on lan­guage at its poe­tic level.

6. Bibliography

Freud, S.

Het ik en de psy­cho­lo­gie der mas­sa, transl. Dr. N. van Suchtelen, Wereldbibliotheek Amsterdam. Undated.

Jakobson, R.

I960: Linguistics and Poetics, in: Style and Language, T.A. Sebeok (ed.), M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1960. pp. 350–368

Lacan, J.

1966: Écrits, Seuil, Paris 1966, rpr. coll. Points, vol. I + II

1973: Le Séminaire. Livre XI: les quat­re con­cepts fon­da­men­taux de la psy­chana­ly­se 1964. Paris, Seuil 1973

1974: Télevisi­on, Paris, Seuil 1974

1975: Le Séminaire. Livre XX: encore 1972–1973, Paris, Seuil 1975

1991: Le Séminaire. Livre XVII: l’en­vers de la psy­chana­ly­se 1969–1970, Paris, Seuil 1991

Levi-Strauss. C.

1981: Die ele­men­ta­ren Strukturen der Verwandtschaft, transl. E. Moldenhauer, Suhrkamp 1981

Miller, J.

1991: Style is the Man Himself, in Lacan and the Subject of Language, E. Ragland- Sullivan and M. Bracher (eds.), Routledge, NY 1991. pp. 143–151

Miller, J‑A.

1979: Cinco con­fe­ren­ci­as caraque­fi­as sob­re Lacan, Coll, ana­li­ti­ca, ed. Ateneo de Caracas, Venezuela, 1979. Transl. A. Zlotsky, Five Conferences about Lacan

Mooij, A.

1975: Taal en ver­lan­gen, Meppel/ Boom 1975

Quackelbeen, J.

1991: Zeven avon­den met Jacques Lacan, Academia Press, Gent 1991


1Lacan 1966: 89–97

2J. ‑A. Miller 1979: 15

3Lacan 1966: 95

4Idem: 112–114

5Lacan 1966: 83

6Lacan 1966: idem

7This is also one of the fun­da­ments of the so-cal­led Freudian pes­si­mism: one can­not assu­me humans to orga­ni­ze them­sel­ves spon­ta­ne­ous­ly in a har­mo­nious manner.

8J‑A. Miller 1979: 18

9J‑A. Miller 1979: idem

10 See Lacan 1973

11Lacan 1973: 53

12Lacan 1973: ix

13Freud unda­ted: 1–94

14Lévi-Strauss 1981: 57–77

15Lacan 1974: 9

16Jakobson I960: 350–358

17Lacan 1991: 11

18Unmitgated joy, bliss

19Lacan 1974: 9

20Lacan 1991: 31–41

21J‑A. Miller 1979: 18

22Mooij 1975: 64–70

23Boileau: vers 153;
Lacan 1974: 71

24Quackelbeen 1991: 196

25Lacan 1966–1: 15–17

26J. Miller 1991: 144–151

27J. Miller 1991: idem

28Lacan 1991: 79–80