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The Cabinet of Dr. Lacan

Ecrits: A Selection

by Jacques Lacan, translated by Alan Sheridan
Norton, 338 pp., $16.75

The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis

by Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan
Norton, 290 pp., $18.95

Jacques Lacan

by Anika Lemaire, preface by Jacques Lacan, translated by David Macey
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 266 pp., $16.50


It is commonly said, by way of depreciating Freud, that he left us not a new science of man but a new picture of man. He opened our eyes.

This is to give Freud less than his due, but also more. For there is no complete picture of man that emerges autographically from Freud’s own hand. There are several reasons for this. The chief one is that Freud never got the two sets of concerns, theoretical and clinical, between which he divided his working life, fully to cohere. And there are several ways in which this shows, one of which is the absence of any account of cognitive development—of how functions like reasoning, perception, and memory mature in the individual. Another (and related) way is the absence of any account of symbolism, of how the individual acquires and uses the system of internal representations with which he encodes reality. What Freud has left us is a sketch toward a picture of man, but he never worked this up into the finished thing.

Awareness of the need to say something about cognitive development and about symbolism is now common in the two principal schools that can make a good claim to be within the Freudian tradition: the New York school of ego psychology, and the so-called “English school” which derives from Karl Abraham and Melanie Klein. There is also an awareness that, since the two topics are connected, something needs to be said about how they connect. Does cognitive development presuppose symbolism (as philosophers tend to think), or does symbolism emerge in response to the needs of cognition (as psychologists tend to think)? And on all these topics both schools have made contributions of insight and interest.

But the thinker who would appear to have taken the challenge of making good these deficiencies most seriously is the legendary. Jacques Lacan. For many years now Lacan’s name has been widely known as that of someone who not only is a practicing analyst whose technique has been the topic of much controversy, but who has, largely through a series of seminars, magisterially conducted and faithfully recorded, 1 brought about an extensive revival of interest in Freud’s thought among French intellectuals and littérateurs. In the Anglo-Saxon world, he has been professionally taken up by some non-psychoanalysts, and he has been professionally ignored by nearly all analysts; but his name remains the best-known thing about him. Now, with the long-awaited translation first of a selection of his Ecrits, which includes his most important lectures and addresses, and then of the transcript of a seminar conducted through the first half of 1964 and put together under the title The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, something of an opportunity has been given to the English-speaking reader to assess the phenomenon.2

Something of an opportunity.” Two things make the qualification necessary. One is that the translated work is still only a small fraction of the total output. The other is that the translator, set no easy task, can claim only partial success: he has got Lacan’s prose out of French but barely into English, with the result that the reader who can manage it would be best advised to have both text and translation in front of him and to use each to decipher the other. He may also want to consult Anika Lemaire’s study, which is agreeably modest, straightforward, and workmanlike.


If we start by thinking of Lacan’s work as an attempt to elaborate the sketch Freud left us, there are three observations to be made about the way he goes about it.

In the first place, Lacan assigns clear priority to symbolism over cognitive development. Advances in cognition depend upon the entry into symbolism. Secondly, symbolism is entered into in two stages. In the earlier stage the infant makes do with a form of pre-symbolic representation, which Lacan calls “the Imaginary,” and only in the later stage does it acquire symbolism proper, or language. Before these two stages, for which there is direct evidence, we have to guess at an inaugural phase. The newly born infant, victim of the prematurity of birth peculiar to man, is at the mercy of unbounded and unmediated instinct: it is (Lacan tells us) a broken egg, “une hommelette.” Thirdly, Lacan treats the whole process as best understood through its outcome, so that to ask at any point what stage of development the infant has reached is to ask how close it is to, or how far from, being a language-user. The crucial question now is what is language, and Lacan’s answer is that he follows Saussure, who has been the major influence upon that whole body of European thought loosely called “structuralist.”

Ferdinand de Saussure, professor of philology at Geneva from 1891 to 1913, was preoccupied all his working life with the question of the fundamental subject of linguistics: how it should be defined. The book toward which all his intellectual efforts were directed was never written and the posthumous Cours de linguistique générale on which we have to rely for his ideas is a compilation of students’ notes taken from his lectures. We remain ignorant how far the difficulties in the book stem from Saussure himself or whether they are not partially due to misrepresentation.

The central idea in the Cours, which must be authentically Saussurean, is that theoretical linguistics, as opposed, say, to various historical inquiries, fundamentally treats of the sign, and the sign is best represented in the formula

S by s

where “S” stands for “signifier” or signifiant, and “s” for “signified” or signifié.3

Saussure understood his formula to convey two essential facts about the sign. The first, which it does convey, is that the sign is a complex: it is made up of two constituents which may be distinguished though they may not be separated. The second fact, which it doesn’t seem to convey, is that the sign is inherently arbitrary. But by arbitrariness Saussure had in mind two different things which he took to be linked. He had in mind that—with the rare exception of onomatopoeia—there is no natural accord between the signifier and the signified that make up a given sign. Generally it is a convention how any language pairs off Ss and ss. Saussure also had in mind that any given signifier and any given signified have the value that they have solely because of the system to which they belong and the relative position that they occupy within it. Each signifier, each signified, is what it is because of the other signifiers used in, or the other signifieds articulated by, the same natural language. The value of the signifier and signified is differential or “diacritical.”

Saussure illustrates his formula with the example Lacan, perceiving that this example conveys the complexity of the sign and its conventional character, but barely its diacritical nature, substitutes his own example which he thinks makes the latter point more perspicuously. We may wonder if it does, just as we may wonder why Lacan thinks it an advantage of Saussure’s example that “arbre” (= “tree”) and “barre” (= “line in the formula”) are anagrams. But he does.

Set out so skeletally, Saussure’s conception of the sign presents certain fundamental problems of interpretation which further reading in the Cours doesn’t conclusively resolve, and which any account that makes use of it is therefore bound to inherit.

The most fundamental question is the most persistent, and it is just how labor is divided between signifier and signified. Over the centuries most of those who have reflected hardest upon language have had forced on them, in some form or another, a distinction which ordinary consideration of the “meaning” of a word easily overlooks. Roughly, the distinction is between that about a word which allows it to pick out things in the world and those very things (if there are any) which it thereby picks out. The distinction has been variously pinned down by the contrast between intension and extension, connotation and denotation, sense and reference. Not all these contrasts are equivalent: some theorists of language have ultimately dispensed with the distinction altogether. But the trouble with Saussure is that he gives one no clear indication how his formula stands to this tradition. Does connotation (to use one dichotomy) go on the side of signifier or signified? Or (to use another) is signified equivalent to sense, or is it just reference? In Saussure’s diagram does the drawing of the tree represent a tree or does it represent some internal representation we have of a tree?

And there are other problems. If every signifier and every signified is to be understood entirely (the crucial word) in terms of all the other signifiers, all the other signifieds, how does meaning ever get started? Will Saussure’s formula do for all signs—or has it been worked out with only one part of speech particularly in mind, i.e., that part which can occupy a subject-place in a judgment? Finally, is it Saussure’s hope that the whole of syntax can be covered by the way signifiers may be permissibly combined—and then the whole of semantics by the way signifieds get linked up by the permissible combinations of signifiers—or do we need from the start something that provides more structure, like the sentence or the fact?

It will be surprising, I have suggested, if Lacan’s account of the infant’s entry into symbolism avoids all these problems. Let us look at this account.

Lacan’s account opens, like Freud’s account of the origins of human culture in Totem and Taboo, on a single catastrophic event. In each case, if it seems mythical to assign such weight to a single event, some sense of reality may be restored by thinking of it as summing up a series of interrelated happenings.4 In Freud’s account, it is the slaying of the primal father. In Lacan’s account, it is the infant’s first sight of its own reflection, which cuts short the inaugural phase of its life and precipitates it toward language. This hypothesis of the stade du miroir was formulated as long ago as 1936 and first presented to the International Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad. The original paper was heavily reworked for the 1949 congress, and it is this version that appears in Ecrits.

Characteristically Lacan adduces no evidence for the significance of the stade du miroir, and it seems that the idea was first suggested to him by studies of animal behavior. Nor is the precise significance of the event all that clear. The crucial thing is that the infant is presented with an image, for it is typical of the ensuing stage, which, as we have seen, Lacan calls “the Imaginary,” that the infant lives with images or its mind is inhabited by them. Lacan gives several different descriptions of how these images function, some positive, or saying what the image does for the infant, some negative, or saying what the image doesn’t do for it. In keeping with what I have said about the nature of Lacan’s account I take the negative descriptions, which in effect say how images fall short of language, as the more fundamental or informative.

  1. 1

    The earlier compte-rendus of Lacan’s seminars were made by the distinguished psychoanalyst J-B Pontalis: the more recent ones by Lacan’s son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller.

  2. 2

    One of Lacan’s more important lectures, “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse,” otherwise known as the “Discours de Rome,” has for some years now been available in translation as The Language of the Self, translated with notes and commentary by Anthony Wilden (Johns Hopkins, 1968). Wilden’s commentary remains of value though it shares with the most intelligent writing on Lacan the tendency, when the thought gets really difficult, to fall into the idiom of the master. Cf. Parveen Adams, “Representation and Sexuality,” m/f (London) no. 1, 1978, pp.65-82.

  3. 3

    Actually, Saussure writes the formula s by S and it is Lacan who inverts it so as to represent “the primacy of the signifier.” I have thought it less confusing to fall in with Lacan’s practice, thinking that, for the present purposes, nothing hangs on it.

  4. 4

    Such a reading of the Lacanian account is suggested in Jean Laplanche’s book Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, translated with an introduction by Jeffrey Mehlman (Johns Hopkins, 1976).

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