This work was first presented by Jacques Lacan at a conference of psychoanalysts and addresses the particular problems psychoanalysts face in dealing with patients. The context of this work led Lacan to begin it by sharply rebuking other practitioners whom he sees as using faulty techniques for dealing with analysis. Although he is dealing primarily with the function of language in the psychoanalytic process, his ideas about the differences between words and language and about the ways in which people use language to define themselves and order their world have much broader implications.

The Importance of Speech

In the introduction, “The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis,” Lacan asserts his firm belief that language—particularly speech—is the only sound tool for analysts to use with their patients. He reminds his colleagues that the analysts’ speech or lack of speech and their capacity to listen are factors in the process of analysis as much as the patient’s talking. He states his goal of convincing his listeners that linguistic research should be primary in their training because language is the only path to the inner truth of their patients.

In the first section, “The Empty Word and the Full Word,” Lacan states that the word is the only thing that really passes between patient and doctor in the analytic process and that the speaking of the words is itself a crucial step. Often the analyst says nothing while the patient talks and talks, but this very silence allows the process of language to work itself out in the patient; patients discover themselves by talking, with no response except the act of listening on the part of the analyst. Words, Lacan points out, are used to create imaginary identities but are also used to destroy them. The second party in the process—the listener—provides the speaker with a framework on which to hang thought, and this allows the speaker to return finally to some reality. Even when a subject is lying or deliberately not telling the truth, the discourse, or act of sharing language between the two, is serving...

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Symbols, Words, and Language

In the second section, “Symbol and Language,” Lacan interprets Freud’s work on symbols and signs and how they interact or fail to interact with language. Lacan returns to Freud’s texts to remind the reader that dreams, considered the ultimate pure expression of the human unconscious, take the form of stories or narratives; they are based on language models. Dreams, therefore, can be seen as languages trying to express themselves, and the same can be said of psychological or physical symptoms—they are a language trying to make itself understood.

At this point, Lacan begins to draw distinctions between the word and language. The word is part of language, but the word cannot exhaust the meaning of language without using language as a tool. The law of the land, for example, is written in words, but to understand it, one must do more than simply understand the meaning of each individual word used to compose a law. One must understand the sense of the words together, the meaning of the whole, to have a real grasp of what the law is saying. Language, therefore, includes words, but is more than the sum of its parts. Words are symbols in the use of language, but language is more complex and implies understanding not only the various meanings of individual words but also the ways in which they relate to each other and to objects, people, or events in real life.

In addition, words are not the whole of language, Lacan states, because even though...

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The Analyst’s Task

In the final section, “Interpretation and Temporality,” Lacan reasserts his belief that unless psychoanalysis returns to the primacy of the word, it will become increasingly meaningless. The task of the analyst is to understand the myriad ways in which language operates in and around people and to apply this knowledge to the way an individual uses language. In analysis, he says, symbols are always markers of something the subject is repressing; however, the symbols themselves are not aware of their function as screens for this repressed material. Therefore, the task of the analyst must be to understand the symbolic in language and tease out the meaning through the process of discourse.

Lacan cites the example of Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch and his work with bee communication to show how “bee dancing” is different from human language. The dancing of bees and language use among humans are similar in that both are intended to convey information. The bee wants to show its fellows where nectar is located and uses an elaborate system of body movements to indicate direction, distance, and other pertinent factors. However, even though this dancing conveys very specific and detailed content, Lacan asserts that it is not the same as language. The primary difference is that with bees, the signs are always fixed in a definite relationship that does not change. The bees always perform the same movements to show “ten feet to the left,” whereas...

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Additional Reading

Benvenuto, Bice, and Roger Kennedy. The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A straightforward, chronologically oriented discussion of Jacques Lacan’s key writings from his early years until his death.

Bowie, Malcolm. “Jacques Lacan.” In Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida, edited by John Sturrock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. This essays provides a brief introduction to Lacan’s thought and is a good place to begin reading about him.

Clement, Catherine. The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Originally published in France in 1981, this book by a former disciple of Lacan is a provocative meditation on the meaning and significance of his life and work in and for contemporary culture.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996. A lucid explanation of many of Lacan’s technical terms, how he came to change them during his career, and some of his influences.

Feldstein, Richard, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus, eds. Reading Seminars I and II: Lacan’s Return to Freud. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. This book offers...

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