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3.4 Focus on Jacques Lacan (1901–81): Repressed Desire and the Limits of Language

Jacques Lacan, in many ways, is more popular than Freud in literary analysis, though Freud is certainly more famous across disciplines. And the fact remains that Lacan is a Freudian—his theory is dependent on Freud. When Lacan writes that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” he moves Freud from the biological realm into the realm of language.Dor, Joël. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured Like a Language. (New York: Other Press, 1998) pg. 244. Freudian literary criticism is primarily external to a work of art: we read and interpret according to Freud’s theories, applying, for example, the id-ego-superego triad to Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark,” as a student example demonstrates later in the chapter. Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism, on the other hand, can be seen as internal to the work, for it focuses on the actual language of the literary work. In other words, the text becomes alive, having its own mind, its own psyche. Lacanian psychoanalysis is textual, part of the artistic, formal construction of the literary work.

As you remember, Freud posits that the mind is divided between the conscious and unconscious, the dividing line between the two states representing the repression barrier. Lacan positions language in this dichotomy by modifying the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that words (or signs) work within a system of other signs (our language). However, Saussure believes a sign is only an arbitrary marker between the signifierThe first part of the sign system that represents that sign or signifier, the actual word for the signifier, or an example. (the form the sign takes—a sound, a symbol, or a word) and its signifiedThe second part of the sign system; the tangible object or “real” concept that is represented by the signifier. (the concept the sign represents). Lacan, who felt that the signifier (the word) dominated the signified (the actual “thing” the word represents), represents the sign system as follows:


Thus to say a cat is a cat is to say the following:

Cat=CA(the word itself)essence of cat (the real cat)

This “bonding” between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, argues Saussure, for we could have easily labeled the “essence of the cat” a trilgy and been hollering for years, “Here, trilgy…trilgy…trilgy.” But Saussure contends that once an arbitrary sign is constructed, it remains bonded together and unchangeable, like two sides to a piece of paper. Language, consequently, is a system of signs, where words take on their meaning only in relationship to other words. Lacan revises Saussure by suggesting that signs are not stable, but in fact are continually shifting; words are a mere approximation of meaning, thus Lacan’s emphasis on the word over the actual “thing” the word represents.

Lacan, then, views words, the signifiers, the marks of letters on a page, as central to the creation of meaning (or the essence of the signified). Words bring meaning to the object; the signified is meaningless without the signifier. Language, consequently, throws a person into a sign system that never captures meaning, the human thrust into the language of desire. Or to put it plainly, if you like cats, then having the word cat nicely printed in your lap is not as fulfilling as having that actual furry creature purring in your lap.

To a degree, the sign, split between the signifier and the signified, acts like a repression barrier: Freud’s unconscious becomes the Lacanian signified—meaning—which can never be fulfilled since language—the signifier—approximates meaning. If Lacan is correct (and, of course, this is a pretty big “if”), then our unconscious is “structured like a language,” and it follows that the human subject is divided between our name (for us, John Pennington and Ryan Cordell) and our signified (for us, the essence of “John Pennington” and “Ryan Cordell”). Lacan distinguishes the dual self by labeling the moi“Me,” which in Lacanian thought represents the image a person has of himself or herself. (the image the person has of himself or herself) and the je“I,” which in Lacanian thought is the actual speaking subject, the person. (the speaking subject that positions the person in language) as parts of the self:

moi (image)je (speaking subject)=(barrier)

Another way of comprehending the moi/je dichotomy is to understand how a pronoun operates in a conversation. If you say to a friend—“I would love to go to a movie tonight, wouldn’t you?”—I = You and the You = Your friend. When your friend responds—“You have a good idea; I’d sure like to go”—the I = Your Friend and You = You. Lacan claims that language creates our identity and places us within the system of language, which, as we remember, is arbitrary and approximate. Language, as Lacan defines it, represents “the unconscious [that] is structured like a language,” yet this language “is the discourse of the Other,” the Other being language.Dor, Joël. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured Like a Language. (New York: Other Press, 1998) pg. 244.

Central to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the Oedipal complex, and Lacan modifies the complex by making it a product of language acquisition. He argues that a child passes through the ImaginaryThe stage where the child believes in wholeness of identity; this is a prelinguistic stage. and the SymbolicThe stage represented by language, law, and order—those socially accepted beliefs. and strives to attain the RealThe sought-after stage that is unattainable since it eludes any attempt to name it in language—the concept of “death” is an example., roughly equivalent to the anal, oral, and phallic stages. The Imaginary stage is prelinguistic, similar to the id with its chaotic collection of desire. During the Imaginary stage, the child has no clearly defined sense of self; instead, it is a mass of fluid desire, Lacan’s image for this is an omelet or egg, a human Humpty Dumpty so-to-speak. In this amorphous Imaginary state, the child has no boundaries since it has no self. However, the child passes through the Mirror stageStage where child passes from the Imaginary (believing in unity) to the Symbolic (which is a world of differences)., where it sees itself reflected in the mirror, and this reflection provides the child with an image of itself, one at first of ideal completeness. The child identifies with the reflection in the mirror. Yet this image of completeness is quickly shattered, for the child must misread itself, for it simultaneously sees itself as unified and as an object, an Other. Thus the beginning of the split subject. It is important to note that during the Mirror stage the child begins to acquire language, learning immediately that what is desired and the words used to identify that object of desire are not the same. Language in the Mirror stage fragments the myth of the unified self contained in the Imaginary stage.

During the Imaginary and Mirror stages, the child is subject to the desire-of-the-motherFound in the Imaginary and Mirror stages, where the mother is one with the child and satisfies all wants and desires., whereby the child has complete desire for the mother and believes the mother in turn exists solely for the child’s pleasure. Again, a division occurs as the self misreads itself in terms of the image the self projects into the mirror (or interprets from the reflection). Mother is both self and other, as is the child’s identity. Enter the father—again. By this time, the child is cast into the Symbolic stage by being thrust into the language of differences. Since language is based on the signifier | signified, it follows that once a child is inserted into language it sees that its desire—the naming of objects—is never fulfilled by the object itself, for language is arbitrary and empty. Furthermore, the child is thrown into a world of differences, for words only take on meaning in relation to other words, primarily the differences between words: male/female; father/son; mother/daughter; moi/je.

Consequently, the child, now split from itself, seeks fulfillment in other objects, the objet petit a“Little object ‘a.’” The desire to find such an object, which provides temporary meaning, yet shifts since the sign system is only an approximation of meaning., loosely translated as “little object ‘a.’” The objet petit a is a product of language, so it cannot really be found. Lacan contends that language operates as to preclude the child’s fulfillment of finding an objet petit a. The mirror reflection becomes an apt metaphor: you are the reflection in the mirror, yet that reflection only “reflects” you (it truly isn’t you). The distance between the mirror and where you are standing symbolizes the gap or gulf between words and a person’s identity. That Alice is able to cross through the mirror into Looking-Glass Land, for example, represents her desire—she is in an imaginary realm (her mind?) where she can attempt to satiate her desire.

Lacan insists then language is a source of our desire but that language becomes the source of frustrated desire since words can never capture desire or the essence of meaning. Think about what happens when you stumble across a word you don’t know: you look it up in a dictionary, only to find that the word is defined by other words, which have their own meanings, which you could look up in a dictionary, which…and we are in an endless, infinite loop. Take the word liminal. What does it mean? The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines liminal as a “sensory threshold,” as something “barely perceptible,” and as an “intermediate state, phase, or condition” that might exist between life and death.Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “liminal,” Now do you know what the word really means? Or are you a bit frustrated? One thing we do know for sure is that Alice travels to liminal spaces when she tumbles to Wonderland and when she crosses over to Looking-Glass Land.

Let’s place all this in a tighter format. Remember, Freud claims that the dreamwork uses displacement and condensation to create the manifest content of the dream. For Lacan the dreamwork is a manifestation of language—displacement resides in metonymySubstitution of a name or word that is closely associated with the thing that is meant; for instance, “White House” used to indicate the executive branch of the government. and condensation in metaphorWhen one object is equated with another, thus substituting for that object: “my love is a red red rose” (metaphor), rather than “my love is like a red red rose” (simile).:


Wondering what metonymy and metaphor are? In A Handbook to Literature, C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon provide excellent definitions of these literary devices. Metonymy is “the substitution of the name of an object closely associated with a word for the word itself. We commonly speak of the monarch as ‘the crown,’ an object closely associated with royalty thus being made to stand for it.”C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, eds., A Handbook to Literature (Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson, 2009). Metaphor is “an analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more or the qualities of the second.”C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, eds., A Handbook to Literature (Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson, 2009).

In effect, metonymy works by displacement, residing on a horizontal axis that reflects the displacement; thus, “a” is displaced by “b,” which is displaced by “c,” and so on. Metaphor, in turn, operates by substitution, and can be placed on a vertical axis where one thing stands in completely for another: “a” = “b.”

You can now see how Lacan’s theory begins to come together. Metonymy, being displacement, is a result of the Mirror stage where the child recognizes its reflection first as a complete substitution for itself (a metaphor), but it soon realizes that the reflection is of an Other, a displacement of the self (a metonym). Thus, since language is split between signifier | signified, it primarily operates as metonymy. Language as metonymy always leaves a gap or absence or lackThat which is created by language since no word can capture the essence of the sign or thing named., since no complete meaning can be attained. Language, consequently, is like the unconscious, which strives to fulfill repressed desire. Another way of understanding language as a gap is to open a dictionary to find a meaning of a word, as we have discussed earlier. Cast into a language of desire, humans are unable to find stable meaning, for language cannot satisfy desire; we continually search for an objet petit a that will fulfill us, but that objet is based on a lack, for it is simply a product of language.

If Lacan subscribes to Freud’s Oedipal complex, then the father must become a significant player in the development drama of the individual. Lacan argues that the desire-of-the-mother, a product of the Imaginary stage, is replaced by the name-of-the-fatherRepresented by the phallus, this is the law and authority that constrains self and desire., the phallusThe privileged sign that represents the name-of-the-father., which represents law and authority and brings some boundary to the self. The phallus or name-of-the-father is not the sexual organ itself, but a symbolic representation that is similar to the superego. The phallus is another objet petit a, but it operates as an anchoring point along the horizontal axis of metonymy. As the human subject floats through language on the metonymic plane, it searches for the phallus and temporarily finds the phallus as a metaphor on the vertical plane. Thus the phallus becomes the privileged signifier, for it helps the split subject achieve temporary meaning in the endless journey through the language of desire. However, the phallus can never be secured, for it too resides in language and quickly slips away. Thus the search for the phallus or name-of-the-father is a frustrated desire since it is a product of language.

Finally, Lacan constructs the ideal realm called the Real, the ultimate place where the Imaginary and Symbolic stages can meet. To Lacan, though, the Real is only symbolic and beyond the reach of language—it represents the unattainable; it represents desire. The Imaginary and Symbolic are like two sides of a sheet of paper, similar to the signifier and signified; the Real is like a Möbius strip constructed from strands of paper where the Imaginary and Symbolic become entangled and lost in the web between the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

    Lacan’s theory is complex and at times confusing, yet like Freud’s it is intriguing. His revising of Freud’s concepts “into” language makes his theory particularly applicable to literary interpretation, for literature is based on language, which is structured like the unconscious. Whereas Freud suggests the literary work is structured like an author’s dream in need of interpretation, Lacan proposes that language itself is a dream of condensation and displacement; therefore, Lacan’s theory is centered more in actual language and less in the peculiar workings of each individual author and reader. Literary interpretation based on language, then, attempts to find meaning in a work that will elude us because language slides away from us. Our desire for interpretation, in a sense, can only be temporarily reached via an anchoring point (a written paper), but that point will be undercut with subsequent papers and interpretations.

Furthermore, Lacan’s Imaginary, prelinguistic stage is appealing to feminist critics, for the Imaginary seems a maternal stage of unity that does not rely on a girl’s symbolic castration to enter into the realm of the Symbolic, for both male and female are immersed into language, which casts each into a world of differences. In Freud’s theory, a girl is defined by lacking—she desires the male organ that she does not have. Lacan, however, situates all this in language, revealing that women are marginalized not biologically but linguistically, for the privileged signifier is the phallus, or patriarchy.

Your Process

  1. What aspect of Lacan’s theory most interests you?
  2. How could you take that interest in Lacan and apply it to a work of literature?
  3. What can you envision as the benefits of such an application?
  4. Are there any concerns you might have about your approach?