“The real is what resists symbolization absolutely.”
Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) was a French psychoanalyst who influenced a generation of younger intellectuals, many of whom would go on to become prominent in the postmodernist movement, through annual seminars which he held from the 1950’s until his death.
Like many other French intellectuals, Lacan was impressed by Levi-Strauss’s application of Saussure to anthropology, and followed his example by applying Saussure to psychoanalysis. According to Lacan, the mind is structured in more or less the same way that language is – as an arbitrary constellation of sign/signified pairs in which each element receives its meaning from the difference between it and all others. He also followed Saussure in interpreting language as an external imposition on “the subject,” (variously society, the individual, or a part of the individual’s psyche.)
According to Lacan an infant begins life in a state of complete union with the mother (initially in the womb), and only becomes aware of itself as distinct very gradually. Lacan called this state of union – of innocent and complete immersion in the pleasure of the body, and, as the infant gradually becomes self-aware, of the sense of being the sole object of the mother’s attention or desire – “jouisance.” The process of becoming self-aware was a gradual process of alienation from this initial and (psychologically) ideal situation.
This occurred through several mechanisms. The first was through the acquisition of language, which is learned from the mother. The infant has to infer the mother’s intentions from the signifiers she uses, which are initially unpaired with any signified. Which signifiers go with which signs has to be inferred through trial and error, and the infant can never be quite certain that these inferences are correct. Further, since language can never capture one’s exact meaning (per Derrida, there are always multiple interpretations available), the process of using it to communicate one’s most basic needs and desires is necessarily a frustrating, alienating experience. What we really want to say is not entirely expressible – and yet we do need to say it. The more one uses language (at the prompting of the superego, or social aspect of our being), the more one becomes “sutured” onto it – or, in other words, the more one identifies that which is causing alienation. Thus self-expression and unmediated being (“the real,” as Lacan put it) pull in opposite directions, producing unresolvable conflicts within the consciousness.
Another process of separation was the infant’s gradual recognition that it was not the end-all be-all of the mother’s world. The father intruded on this relationship, and supplied something for the mother that the infant could not – according to Lacan (following Freud) the phallus. The recognition that the relationship was incomplete prompted gender-identification (not, obviously, biological sex) – as female, to _have_ the phallus, as male, to _be_ the phallus. Or, put another way, to share the mother’s desire, or to attempt to fulfill it. Lacan seems to have had in mind both a literal and a metaphorical meaning for the term “phallus.” In one sense it was simply the male sex organ, and in the other, the incompleteness which drove the infant and mother apart, and prompted the infant to move toward the mother or the father in an (again futile) attempt to repair the gap.
When the infant becomes fully aware of itself as separate from the mother, it has reached “the mirror stage,” (i.e. the point at which it can recognize itself in the mirror), and begins to construct its ego (what Lacan called “the imaginary”) out of similar identifications between self and other. Nevertheless, it never quite outgrows “jouisance.” Much of a person’s thought and actions can, Lacan suggested, be understood as an attempt to resolve the mystery of what the mother “really” meant while the infant was learning the language, to return to “jouisance,” and (again, following Freud) to have (or be) the mother. Since all of these desires are, strictly speaking, impossible, much of what people think and do is a kind of steeple chase to nowhere – people want what they can never have, cannot help wanting it, and falsely identify that original desire with the things they desire in a more prosaic and transient sense. Often, though of course not always, this is the object of erotic desire. No wonder they are so restless and dissatisfied – their entire conception of the world is, as Derrida said of Western philosophy, “logo-centric” – which is to say, organized around the illusion of organization from outside oneself.
The goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis was more or less the same as Derrida’s goal with respect to western philosophy – to recognize the “transcendent signified” for what it was, abandon the fruitless quest for it, and become rooted in the circumstances in which one actually found oneself. Presumably this would, in the one case as in the other, bred the self-awareness necessary for self-control, maturity, rational decision-making, and in short, common sense. Once people are aware of their own irrationality, one hopes, it may not have so powerful a grip on them.
Part of a Series on Postmodernism (VIII of XVI)