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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135

In his essay “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I,” Lacan began a lifelong effort to rescue psychoanalysis from what he saw as a mistaken conflation of the subject and the ego. Instead of objectifying the ego as a mechanism that accommodates the libidinal instincts to the superego’s demands, Lacan posits the ego as an alienated reflection of the subject’s split sense of self, figured for him or her in the child’s perception of its own reflection. The child’s ego emerges as a conscious expression of the relation between an ideal self and a perceived self, and an ontological confusion results as the child’s ego attempts to structure its perceiving self in relation to its perceived image.

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By understanding identity as a function of the alienating and distorting perceiver, Lacan cleared the way for his observation that the structural laws determining the unconscious operate according to the same linguistic laws on which Saussure based his theory of the sign. For Saussure, the linguistic sign was composed of a signifier and a signified—a phonetic sound and its concept. The relation between these two components of the sign is arbitrary but fixed, as may be seen by the simple fact that the same concept is expressed by different words in different languages (“tree” and “arbre,” for example). From this theory, Lacan posits an infinite sliding of the signifier from under the signified through the displacements and substitutions of metonymy and metaphor—the signifier operating like the alienated perceiver in the ego’s subject/object disintegration. Drawing on the analogy between the unconscious and language, Lacan argues that Saussure’s distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech) provides a model for understanding the structure of the unconscious. Against the entire field of possibilities that exist for any sentence, any particular act of speech exists as a tentative configuration of signifiers potentially sliding through a chain of associations. Thus, any signification is sustained only in reference to another signification to which the perceiver has not attended.

Recognizing that dreams disrupt such stability of signification, Lacan believes that in their structure the unconscious can be seen functioning similarly to the gestalt of language and speech: The dream acts as a sentence drawn from the symbolic language of the unconscious. The task of analysis, then, is to read the dream, finding through its associations the metonymies and metaphors that have been repressed in the sliding of the signifiers. It is these absences—rather than the presence of a specific theme representing some signified—that hold the key to the patient’s neurosis. Thus, just as language precedes and constitutes the social patterns of community, the unconscious precedes and constitutes the desire for integration of the alienated self. Lacan, then, resists the tendency in Freudian theory toward the reductionism of a biological model, which eliminates the human calculus. He offers instead a linguistic model, which emphasizes what is most human because language is a specifically human activity.

What are the implications of Lacan’s thesis that the unconscious is structured like a language? The most radical implication concerns the content of the unconscious, which no longer is latent and waiting to be expressed but rather is the relation of the signifiers themselves as they are organized according to the laws of language. Lacan draws on the work of Roman Jakobson to define these laws by the matrix of metaphor and metonymy. Thus, it is not enough to translate the signifier found in the unconscious (as in traditional Freudian dream work) from one symbolic signifier to another signifier that shares a common signified. Once the signifier is cut off from the signified in the metonymic associations of the unconscious, then the signified is emptied of its metaphoric content and functions as its own arbitrary signifier in the unconscious. Such an autonomy of the signifier is central to Lacan’s definition:a signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier. This signifier will therefore be the signifier for which all the other signifiers represent the subject: that is to say, in the absence of this signifier, all the other signifiers represent nothing, since nothing is represented only for something else.

As long as the associations of the signifier remain in the unconscious, they remain metonymic and contiguous. Only when the associations become metaphoric does a symbolic effect emerge from the unconscious to produce meaning. At the moment of signification (the linking of signified to signifier), the unconscious metonymic associations are concealed, which suggests to Lacan that any act of meaning conceals more than it reveals about a specific signifier. Significance, then, may be defined as the effect produced when one signifier replaces another and the possibilities for meaning are fixed in a single metaphor that occludes the entire chain of previous signifiers. It is the work, therefore, of psychotherapy to trace the chains of signifiers eliminated by the act of conscious understanding.

Having defined the topography of the unconscious through his formulation that it is structured like a language, Lacan positions it in relation to the subject. Instead of an autonomous ego, Lacan posits a speaking subject that locates itself in relation to “the Other.” The distinction, Lacan claims, makes possible a return to Freud’s essential discovery of the unconscious as the site of the relation between the individual and the social order. Drawing from G. W. F. Hegel, Lacan translates into a dialectic of desire his observation from “The Looking-Glass Phase” that self-consciousness results from “the deflection of the specular I into the social I.” The individual comes to self-consciousness by a recognition of the alienation between his perceptual self and the perceived self, which is represented by his social image in the mirror. Phrased in Hegelian terms, Lacan’s formulation posits that to speak as an “I” is to be aware of the distinction between one’s desire and the object of one’s desire.

Language, then, is rooted in the awareness of being (one’s desires) and nonbeing (what is desired). The individual’s double-sided identity emerges out of presence and absence, a relation that Lacan has described as the working of metonymy and metaphor in the unconscious. The self, thus, is constituted by language as it speaks the terms of its own alienation. Yet if the ego emerges as the effect of a split that speaking creates, what thinks the discourse that is spoken in the first place? Rather than a stable, unifying voice, the ego expresses the “imaginary” relation of the subject’s split between self and other, a dialectic of being. Lacan has come full circle: If the alienated awareness of self in the mirror stage is grounded in speech, the laws of language that make up the unconscious are no less grounded in ontology.

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