Critical Context

Reading Lacan can be a frustrating experience. Believing that signification emerges out of the unconscious, he uses language to engage the reader in an intuitive understanding. Freud’s great contribution was to discover the unconscious through the analysis of the dream as rebus. Lacan, based in his notion that the unconscious is structured like a language, presents his ideas in a style that more closely resembles a linguistic rebus than an analytical argument. Although this approach makes Lacan’s work difficult, it is consistent with his emphasis on returning to Freud’s discoveries about the unconscious. The reader does not come to understand what Lacan believes so much as to experience how he thinks. It is probably this emphasis on the reader’s participation in creating Lacan’s text that has made him an important voice, more recognized in cultural and literary criticism than in psychological studies. The most outspoken psychoanalytic critic of Lacan’s linguistic model has been Paul Ricoeur. In Le Metaphore vive (1975; The Rule of Metaphor, 1977), Ricoeur finds the self-contained structures in Lacan’s theory to make up a hermetically sealed system that is unresponsive to the world of the signified, the world of meaning and reference, with which, he argues, psychoanalysis ultimately must concern itself.

Ricoeur’s objections, however, do not allow for the essentially unstable nature of signification that is the basis of Lacan’s poststructuralist theory. No longer the single unit that Saussure’s linguistic theory posited, the sign is viewed as a suspended moment, crossing the gap between the separate realms of signifier and signified. It is precisely this linguistic notion that is established by Lacan’s principle of the signifier sliding under the signified. Signification is always meconnaissance (misknowledge) because it fixes the infinite associations of the signifier into a stable network of relations that has been structured by the unconscious and is therefore “imaginary.” Lacan’s works reopen the closed structuralist system of Saussure’s linguistics and provide a rationale for the method of free association that is central both to a psychoanalytic interpretation of the unconscious and to a poststructuralist theory of discourse.