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Lacan's 'orthodox sublation' of Freud - Anchoring the Subject in the Symbolic

Posted February 24th, 2011 at 01:56 AM by Gile na Gile

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The multidisciplinary holistic approach undertaken by the French psychoanalyst and polymath, Jacques Lacan, has produced an imposing edifice from which to view the human condition. Lacan set himself an enormous task, eventually fusing Freudian doctrine with phenomenology, structuralism and Saussurean linguistics while drawing on insights from the fields of anthropology and ethology. Beginning with his doctoral thesis on paranoia his first flag of conquest is, unlike Freud, who initially concentrated exclusively on the neuroses, set down firmly in the terrain of the psychoses.


Generally speaking, the opening salvo in a man's career may be regarded as a strong indicator of future research interests. Indeed, one could go further and suggest that what has come to be regarded as "The Lacanian Subject" has itself has been forged in the light of his early researches with those who were then termed "paranoiacs". This has implications, also, for the type of "subject" which Lacan presents to us.

According to the Lacanian schema, from the earliest days we are told that the infant experiences 'bodily fragmentation' through the lack of motor coordination where uncontrollable alimentary and intestinal disturbances are allied with a general lack of spatial awareness. Lacan then articulates the emergence of an event which has a primary structuring role in the ontogenesis of the infant, who is, in an important sense not yet a 'subject'. This is the so-called Mirror Stage. At some point between 6-18 months the infant discovers, 'to his jubilation', his reflection in a mirror, (or some such specular device), which makes him behold for the first time his non-fragmented unified self. Lacan draws heavily whenever he talks about the imaginary on certain facts from the field of ethology. For example the gonads of the female pigeon are triggered into maturation on seeing;

"another member of its species, of either sex; so sufficient in itself is this condition that the desired effect may be obtained merely by placing the individual within reach of the field of reflection of a mirror." (Ecrits pg.3)

The imaginary is then, in part, an image based realm of information processing. These Gestalts, or whole forms, are unavoidably the only means whereby the child receives its knowledge from the world and they form the basis of strong identificatory fixations that have the effect of reinforcing what Lacan refers to as the 'illusion of totality';

"The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as a Gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him." (Ecrits pg.2)

The phenomenon of transitivism among infants is often cited as evidence for the powerful influence of the imago in the formation of the child's archaic consciousness. The child identifies at times so strongly with the other that their punishment is perceived as his own. However, this identification with the other is deemed grounded on a false recognition of unity; there is a fundamental misrecognition or meconnaisance. This marks the beginning of "alienation" in the subject, a special technical term used extensively within the Lacanian ouevre. We can now incidentally begin to talk of a primordial "subjectivity" not least because the child is now the subject of the lure, the trap (or the attraction) to refinding each time this lost unity. This search to fill the lack which will forever more constitute his being signals the idea of their being a lack in 'the Other' since ultimately there is no guarantor for man's desire. Desire, in and of itself, is indestructible, lack of itself is constitutive but the object of desire is always fleeting and transitory.

The instincts are grounded on biological processes but it is the ideational representatives attached to them that undergo alteration. This is the source of one of Lacan's favourite formulas; "Mans desire is the desire of the other". In short then, the Imaginary may be characterised as consisting of feelings of fragmentation; the mirage of bodily unity disguising the real of non-integrity, of false identificatory fixations; the other is not recognised as having his own distinct collection of desires, and of frustration and aggressivity.

Lacan's second pivotal stage for the structuring of the subject is, like Freud's, that of oedipalization. However, Lacan places this ontological moment within a wider interpretive framework; the subject is regarded as being inserted in the Symbolic Order, the second of Lacans registers which define human reality. Taking this approach we begin to glimpse what it is that Lacan means by 'a return to Freud'. There is a marked tendency to metaphorise, what Roudinesco refers to as the 'orthodox sublation' of Freudian doctrine; somewhat like a computer programmer overwriting more basic code with a higher-level language.

Lacan favours the creation of a conceptual distance between Freudian explanations of early sexual dynamics; castration appears invariably as signification of 'the phallus'; the biological father in Freud is replaced by the 'paternal metaphor' or the Name-of-the-Father and so on. This is not to say that the original emphasis of Freud has been neglected by Lacan but should rather be read both as an attempt to put into the foreground the centrality of the signifier and to provide a mode of exegesis which apprehends a given psychological problem with terms whose polyvalency have the benefit of immediately situating his discourse in several areas simultaneously.

Freud is often forced, due to his historically determined position in the development of ideas, to employ his terminology, particular those definitions belonging to the theories of child sexuality, in a manner that often has a jarring, surreal effect on contemporary readers. His use of the term 'castration' for instance, in the analysis of Schreber becomes problematic, not so much because of the chasm of time which separates the Senatspresident from his childhood, since most Freudian readers will have accepted the oedipal transition's importance as a structuring moment, but because a new term is evidently required to qualify the altogether different experience of the adult. If, however, we view the phallus as the manifestation of a broadly conceived locus of power as well being descriptive of the subject and representative of his initial attitude towards oedipal triangulation then the original Freudian term may be used exclusively to refer to the child's oedipalization.

We get the sense moreover that Lacan views the child's accession to the realm of language as an event contemporaneous with his acceptance of the Law (of the Father) and of the threat of castration. With the advent of language the child assumes subjectivity proper. The subject is placed in a predetermined constellation of signifiers; (his surname for example predates him), but more importantly for Lacan the introduction of language initiates a split (Spaltung) in the subject. The subject is radically decentred for as soon as the 'I' speaks the question is asked who has spoken. To understand this point we must go to Lacan's reading of the Saussurean concept of the sign.

For Lacan, and indeed in common with the entire poststructuralist tradition there is a radical glissement, or sliding, between the signifier and the signified. The signifier, in its verbal form, is an arbitrarily chosen guttural ejaculation which bears no intrinsic relationship to the object being signified as language is a system of signs, developed through mutual recognition, and hinges on the consent of all language users that 'this represents that' and so forth. Where Lacan differs is in his assertion that not only is the signifier unstable, due to the tendency inherent in language use for one's interlocutor to infer mental images or signifieds contrary to one's intention, but also in his claim that the signified itself is not to be confused with external reality;

"The trap, the hole, one must not fall into, is the belief that signifieds are objects, things. The signified is something that is quite different ... it always refers to meaning, that is, to another meaning" (Les Psychoses , pg.32)

Later on, in Seminar XI, "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis", Lacan regards the generation of meaning as an effect that can only emerge through the criss-crossing of the network of signifiers, to establish one's Gewissheit, or certainty. It is a process similar to that of the scientific discourse, he goes on, which corroborates findings through the accumulative self-correcting power of opposing critiques. The signifier only refers to another signifier and so on ad infinitum.

With regard to this alienating function of language we may say in the first place that each subject by necessity has at his disposal his own idiosyncratic set of signifiers with their own controlling or master signifiers which he will use in his attempts to communicate with(in) the Other who is likewise and for the same reasons limited in his communicative capacity. This can be looked upon as the unsatisfactory meeting of two small percentage stakeholders in the overall discursive capacity of the language in question. (See Bakhtin's work on subdialects and their interaction within a particular langue).

Also, there is the additional difficulty of overcoming the slippage in meaning integral to the nature of the signifier. The signifier cannot be reduced to one stable meaning as it must always refer to another signifier; so too for Derrida, the important point is not that language is inherently destabilizing, that the signified cannot be anchored satisfactorily, but the manner in which we accommodate ourselves to this fact, to the amount of recognition and care we give to the inevitable leakage of meaning in the construction of both discourses - and ourselves.

[ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan"]Jacques Lacan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

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