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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.

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The Importance of Speech

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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 some function.

As an example, Lacan cites psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s study of his patient Anna O. and the discovery that describing a traumatic event from the past that produced physical or mental symptoms could alleviate the symptoms immediately. The “naming” of the trauma through language allowed the subject to be free of its effects. By this example, Lacan attempts to show that language has powers quite apart from its ability to communicate information between people.

In this section, Lacan also describes the various ways in which language can be used to communicate. For example, he states that the unconscious part of a subject’s mind is revealed in those parts of language that are not under his or her direct control, such as physical aspects (including pronunciation), vocabulary, use of metaphor and simile, and omissions. Often, subjects give information by what they refuse to say or are unable to say. It is the task of the analyst to discover the truth found in these empty spaces.

Language, according to Lacan, is a process of speaking whereby one’s history is made real. Therefore, even before children are able to speak, they are unconsciously organizing their experiences according to the verbal model; in other words, they are writing their histories. The task of the analyst is to help people restate these histories in a pattern that is meaningful and helpful to them. Lacan concludes this section with a statement on the omnipresence of discourse in the human experience. If discourse—speaking, hearing, and replying—is the unifying factor of human existence, language has a primary importance in all human relations, not just psychoanalysis.

Symbols, Words, and Language

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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 animals can be made to recognize the sound of certain words and to respond in a desired way, words are not merely a collection of sounds. Words have meaning in language because they relate to concepts as well as concrete objects, and this can be understood only by humans, the users of language. Language always refers back to itself and assumes a large body of knowledge on the part of the participant. To use language, one must do more than merely speak the sounds of words. One must understand an enormous and complicated system of references and signals and be able to use them in different contexts and to constantly modify them as the process of using language unfolds over time. Language completely envelopes people’s lives, and it is by and through language that people understand themselves and the world that surrounds them.

Lacan provides an extremely telling example of a man who is working in production and sees himself as a member of the proletariat. Because he identifies himself as such, he participates in a strike that shuts down production at a plant. In this case, even though the word “proletariat” defines a concept, rather than a concrete object, its meaning is real for the man who names himself as part of this group. His use of this name to refer to himself and his condition causes him to act in a way that affects the world of concrete objects and potentially alters history.

The Analyst’s Task

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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 language is infinitely adaptable and is able to change to fit the needs of individual speakers at any given moment. For example, using language, a person might say “ten feet to the left,” “over by the violets,” or “next to the fence but a few feet up from the apple tree,” and so on, with nearly infinite permutations. Further, the “fence” in question might be picket, chicken wire, hurricane fencing, or a thousand other variations—language develops in use to meet the needs of its users.

In summation, Lacan contends that language is always a subjective exercise, because a speaker always assumes a hearer and anticipates a response. The speaker—whether the subject of psychoanalysis or an everyday individual—shapes speech to conform to various sets of norms (social, cultural, economic, relational) and always assumes a certain listener who is also shaping a response to what is said and heard. Even when talking to the self, one assumes that another part of one’s personality or mind will hear and shape a reply. Language always seeks the response from the other, whether the other is really another individual or merely one’s own unconscious. Language therefore identifies people to themselves as well as to others.

The impact of Lacan’s language analysis on modern thought would be hard to overstate. His elucidations of Freud’s major texts and theories provided a wealth of information for not only psychoanalysts but also sociologists, linguists, literary theorists, and feminists. His insights into the functions of language and his clear examinations of how language orders the individual’s view of the self and affects the relations people form with each other in society are extremely important to all modern critical thought. Though Lacan was at times the focus of resentment and could be very petty in his disdain for those who did not agree with his methods (as the introduction to this work shows), he became increasingly significant in the latter part of the twentieth century, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s.


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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 a series of in-depth essays that discuss theoretical foundations and clinical applications of Lacan’s work. Authors include Jacques-Alain Miller, Colette Soler, and Slavoj iek.

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. A complex work that explores the implications of Lacan’s work for the practice of reading and interpretation in contemporary culture.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. A series of powerful psychoanalytic readings of Lacan’s work by a literary critic. This book both demonstrates the importance of Lacan’s thought for work in the humanities in general and is a representative instance of the impact Lacan’s thought has had on feminist theory.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge, 1995. A lucid overview of Lacan’s work from a feminist perspective, providing an introduction to many of his seminal ideas as well as both objections and support from feminist thinkers.

Leader, Darian, and Judy Groves. Introducing Lacan. 1996. Reprint. New York: Totem Books, 1998. The comic book presentation of Lacan, which provides an amusingly illustrated and basic outline of many of the philosopher’s ideas, is an excellent resource for a beginner.

Marini, Marcelle. Jacques Lacan: The French Context. Translated by Anne Tomiche. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. A succinct overview of Lacan’s work in general and the cultural context of his professional life.

Roudinesco, Elisabeth. Jacques Lacan: Outline of a Life, History of a System of Thought. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Colombia University Press, 1997. An extensive and carefully researched account of Lacan’s life by a French scholar and historian of psychoanalysis in France.

Turkel, Sherry. Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud’s French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Guilford Press, 1992. Lacan is the central figure in this account of the reception of Freud and psychoanalysis in French culture in the decades after 1945.

iek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. An accessible and eloquent account that elucidates key Lacanian notions through an application to certain components of film and fiction in popular culture.

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