Thinking With One’s Feet – Lacanian Theories Of Textual Engagement, Part 2 (William J. Urban)

The following is the second part in a three-part installment. The first part can be found here.

The Symbolic Lacan: Signifiance of Texts

There are certain key écrits [1] from the 1950s that in effect fully announce Lacan’s entry into his so-called “structuralist phase.” Academically speaking, this Lacan is the most well-known of our three Lacans and certainly it is his work from this period on the signifier that is most often put to use. But before considering these texts, it is crucial to stress how the symbolic and the imaginary registers are intimately related. This will simultaneously underscore how Lacan’s thinking needs to be considered in light of its whole, for any one element is only fully constituted in relation to the others.

This is radically the case with the Borromean knot of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real: severing any one of the three rings causes the other two to become separated as well and the overall structure that defines any one of its rings is thereby lost. [2] We can partially illustrate such interdependence by emphasizing the usually overlooked fact of how the logic of the signifier must already be operative in his earlier thinking of the mirror stage. This is a fact that Lacan himself often stresses in his later writings.

Throughout the Écrits (which can largely can be considered the work of the Symbolic Lacan as the very latest papers published therein only date to the mid-1960s), Lacan makes frequent mention to how “[t]he mirror stage establishes the watershed between the imaginary and the symbolic in the moment of capture by an historic inertia,” telling us that within the mirror stage there is a non-mythical beyond to the limits imposed by the imaginary which has to do with another (symbolic) register. [3] Moreover, even if the imaginary overlaps somewhat with the symbolic in the mirror stage, it nevertheless harbors the rule of the dividing line between the imaginary and the symbolic within the mirror stage. [4]

More importantly, Lacan elsewhere establishes the supremacy of the symbolic over the imaginary, thereby warning the subject not to remain transfixed by the mere image. [5] Such transfixion with one’s Ideal-ego encourages a false sense of mastery and leads to narcissism and aggressive posturing. [6] Lacan explicitly tells us that he has intentionally introduced his theory of the mirror stage to combat the contemporary stress on the alleged autonomy of the ego and its supposed need to be strengthened so as to better adapt the subject to “reality.” [7] In contrast, Lacan finds that true resistance is found in the imaginary and it is precisely through the mirror stage that the subject can carve out some breathing space by identifying with a purely symbolic point. [8]

In one paper [9], Lacan adopts an extremely complex optical model, inclusive of a series of (curved) mirrors, to more fully illustrate how the subject is constituted. A cursory glance at his diagrams reveals how Lacan has in effect developed a much more sophisticated mirror stage theory. Utilizing this new model, he tells us how the real image of the subject is substituted by a virtual image that is superimposed onto the real space “behind the mirror.” [10] What he is getting at with this statement is how the imaginary and the symbolic are not simply opposed to each other as if they were on two external levels. Rather, the specific dimension of the symbolic emerges from the very imaginary mirroring itself, from its doubling: [11] there is always a point of double reflection at which the imaginary is hooked onto the symbolic.

This virtual point Lacan calls the “Ego-ideal” and in terms previously noted, this is provided by the mother’s assurance that the image in the mirror is really the child’s image. This symbolic point is not a glimpse into the way “reality” really is, nor is it an insight into how others see me, but rather this point indexes the way I see the others seeing me. What needs to be understood is that the image in the mirror which produces the Ideal-ego (or the imaginary form in which we appear to ourselves likeable) is always subordinated to the symbolic identification of the Ego-ideal (which is that point from which we are observed). Returning to Lacan’s model of the elementary imaginary dyad of the child lacking full motor coordination observing himself in the mirror, what is crucial to grasp is how in order for this mirror stage to occur, there must logically first be a space within which to do so.

What Lacan is telling is that this a priori space (which is “internal” to the psychic economy of the child in some sense), is marked off by the virtual point of the Ego-ideal, a point which forms his symbolic identification. This is the child’s identification with the very place from where he is being observed, from where he looks at himself so that he appears to be likeable (to himself). Since the imaginary identification of the Ideal-ego is always already subordinated to the symbolic identification of the Ego-ideal, the latter thereby dominates and determines one’s overall self-image. It is as if the Ego-ideal “clears the space” that is subsequently filled in by the phantasmatic image of the Ideal-ego.

Hence the imaginary register of images is necessarily and inherently split, which is why Lacan refers to “the lethal gap of the mirror stage,” for “without the gap that alienates him from his own image, this symbiosis with the symbolic, in which he constitutes himself as subject to death, could not have occurred.” [12] This gap is constitutive of the subject’s overall image of self and is what makes psychoanalysis possible, for such analysis “operates in the symbolic… [and] is able to reshape an ego that is thus constituted in its imaginary status.” [13]

Such reasoning led Lacan to suspect that phenomenology is determined as the imaginary science of the imaginary register so that by the mid-1950s, he begins to provide a rigorous structural accounting of phenomenology in order to break away from it. His key papers from this time attest to his effort to unwind the logic of the signifier which in retrospect could be seen as having been embedded all along in his initial thinking in the 1930s.

The overall claim he now makes is that the subject is precisely the subject of the signifier and as we just saw, its status is that of a virtual image. It exists only as a virtual point in the self-relating of the signifier’s dyads, as something that “will have been” and that is never present in reality or in its “real” image. It is always already “past” although it never appeared “in the past itself.” It is constituted by means of a double reflection. In order to see this, we need to resist the temptation to simply read these 1950s texts as structural texts, albeit ones that demonstrate an unusually sophisticated knowledge of linguists. So simply because he mentions all sorts of obscure figures of speech and tropes such as periphrasis, hyperbaton, catachresis, litotes, antonomasia and hypotyposis, this should not be taken as an indication that Lacan favors a strict semiotic analysis of texts. Rather, he asks: “Can one see here mere manners of speaking, when it is the figures themselves that are at work in the rhetoric of the discourse the analysand actually utters?” [14]

If the structure of language is stressed over emotional states of verbal discourse and the inevitable images thereby produced, this is calculated so as not to further enable the imaginary of the subject who believes he can confine himself “to giving a new truth its rightful place, for the point is to take up [his] place in it.” [15] That Lacan’s own writing style is more performative and prescriptive than demonstrative attests to the inscription of his own subjectivity in his texts, that the only guarantee to the truth of his statements is the contingency of his having enunciated them. Or inversely, as the title of one of his key papers indicates, the instance of the letter is to be found in the unconscious. This means that when analyzing a text, we are most definitely not to treat the signifier as detached from any relation to the “real world;” rather, Lacan the psychoanalyst reminds us that we should always be attentive to the status of a very real human subject as it makes use of language.

It is our subjective position in relation to the text we are reading and the author’s subjective position to his own text that truly matter. Moreover, because psychoanalytic experience has revealed to Lacan how the structure of language is not only to be located in the unconscious but also in a radical sense to be equated with the unconscious, these subjective positions must necessarily be decentered in relation to the text. Properly speaking, what this means is that one fails to read a text only when one overlooks how one’s own subjectivity is necessarily inscribed “in” the text. Practically speaking, this would entail resisting the allure of images produced by one’s imagination when engaging with a text and endeavor instead to identify with that a priori virtual point which brings subjective unity to the text.

Saussure’s Signifie-Signifiant diagram. Wikimedia Commons.

We can further bring out Lacan’s own structuralist break from traditional structuralism by examining his “Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious.” The most obvious thing in this paper is that Lacan subtracts from and fully subverts Saussure’s sign in various ways to produce what he calls his own algorithm [16]: the enclosure and arrows are eliminated and the signifier and signified are reversed with the signifier dominating on top while the line literally bars any intimate relation between the two.

This bar we can actually read as the “phallic stand-in” for the missing relationship between them and the Gentleman and Ladies graphic with the two doors seems calculated to drive this point home: with it, Lacan fully lays to rest the image-laden signified, indicating how the signifier “enters the signified and makes it swell or blow up like a balloon. The more closely we examine any particular signifier…the more its meaning inflates.” [17] What we are left with is the opposition between signifiers and it is this opposition itself which is crucial for the Lacan of the 1950s as it nevertheless paradoxically involves something “beyond” the symbolic.

We can approach this beyond via the relation between signification (meaning) and the signifier. Meaning of course does not completely disappear but is revealed as that which is “anchored” to a chain of signifiers by other signifiers. That is, the potential sliding of the meaning of any term in a sentence is momentarily stopped or anchored by the latter part of the sentence so that while meaning certainly insists in a series of signifiers, we are nevertheless unable to localize exactly where it specifically consists in that series. This is what drives Lacan to specify the difference between the letter and the signifier and this distinction essentially indexes his radical break with structuralism proper.

The letter, he tells us, is “the essentially localized structure of the signifier” such that if one is to grasp it, it must be taken literally (à la lettre) for it is “the material [support] that concrete discourse borrows from language.” [18] Again and again Lacan reminds us that language and its structure is neither psychical nor somatic, so it cannot be considered innate in us in any sense; rather, it “exists prior to each subject’s entry into it at a certain moment in his mental development.” [19] This means that the letter has no proper meaning but instead references a subversion of the place of meaning itself. [20]

Again, we can extend the reasoning here to psychoanalysis in general and from there to a formal strategy of textual engagement. Dreams of course are full of meaning and it is quite natural to awake from a dream and ponder its meaning. But what Lacan now realizes is that if you remain at the imaginary-signification level that is the level of meaning – if you remain at the level of this question – you will never reach the “truth” of the dream-text.

Rather, the goal is to approach the senseless structural mechanism which generates the phenomenal effect-of-meaning and so dreams now become first and foremost texts to be deciphered and dream analysis is to be done at the level of the letter via the examination of signifiers. Fink provides a useful example on how to properly read a dream. Say you dream of the former US vice president Al Gore rhythmically dancing the Macarena. [21] The point here is that you will be led astray if you focus on the rather ridiculous imagery of this dream and ponder its meaning since you thereby overlook the necessity of adhering to the “surface level” of the signifier. Thus if you “translate” the images into signifiers, you thereby see how the dream efficiently represents  your frustrating experience the previous night when you engaged with Lacan’s re-translation of Saussure’s sign into his own incomprehensible al-gor-rithm.

So here we have a bit of dream-textual nonsense that condensed a “meaningful” experience of frustration. Images in dreams are always associated with signifiers and it is only at this level that we can find the key to unlock their mystery. [22] The lesson here is that the blind pursuit of meaning which accompanies the mere contemplation of images simply leads to further alienation for the subject whereas it is only non-meaning or nonsense that acts as a pivot or suspension point which can separate the subject. This is what Lacan is getting at with his discussion of metonymy. The metonymic slippage indicated with his complex equation for metonymic structure is equivalent to the ego insofar as the ego is precisely what is constructed to cover over the subject’s lack of being. [23]

This lack of being is now to be thought of as persisting at the level of the unconscious (whereas in a strict imaginary reading of the mirror stage, such lack was only conceived at the imaginary level and precipitated due to the lack of unity and coordination of motor skills). In a word, if the subject originally emerges as pure difference in relation to his own being, he cannot but strive to appropriate this being by way of meaning constituted in the Other, of its endless metonymic sliding along the signifying chain. Exclusively focusing on this metonymic slide, as a hermeneutical approach does in its project of endless (re-)interpretation, simply overlooks how its very own activity must necessarily be supported by a point of nonsense.

This is why the analyst must not foster the further displacement or metonymy of the patient’s desire for a full and meaningful being, but rather should frustrate the illusory dominance of the patient’s imaginary Ideal-ego. He is to focus on getting the patient to locate his own subjectivity in that unique metaphor which dominates him since this metaphor concerns the place of the subject. Such a metaphor psychoanalysts call a symptom and in a word this symptom presents itself in the place of the subject of the unconscious. [24]

Further, with these 1950s texts we clearly see why Lacan considers the subject as split between the ego of the statement and its unconscious enunciation of that statement. This means that the unconscious is not a subset of the ego, so working at one level does not get you to the other. Rather than an overlap, a gap exists between the two so to move from one to the other a “leap” must be made. This is what Lacan is getting at when, in the Signification of the Phallus text, he starts to speak of castration in relation to language. What he will later call the “phallic function” in his formulae of sexuation from Seminar XX, the castration of language refers to a common experience shared by all speaking beings which is the extraordinary difficulty in saying exactly what you intend to say.

No matter how well you speak, there always seems to be something left unsaid, a remainder of sorts that resists being articulated into language. But as well, the obverse experience of this castrating effect of language is equally true, for we just as often find ourselves “saying too much,” over-above what we intend to say. Such Freudian slips of the tongue usually leave us quite embarrassed and often expose us to an unconscious truth that was perhaps better left unsaid. These experiences testify to a disruptive force of a certain real element which makes itself felt at the level of the symbolic structure as nonsense.

Hence, the corresponding strategy of textual engagement to the Symbolic Lacan of the 1950s compels us to resist the question of meaning and instead focus on those points of the text which seem to involve non-meaning and which concern the nonsensical facet of the signifier at its metaphoric level. But in doing so, we must simultaneously note how the real already makes its “presence” known in the symbolic, simultaneously requiring us to expose and work through the text’s signifiance [25] while resisting the urge to produce yet another meaningful reading.

In terms of our previous examples, we should thus not give into the temptation to supplement Jakobson’s notion of the phatic function of language with additional signification to better fit it into his overall structure; rather, the task here would be to grasp it as such, as a senseless structural mechanism which generates the entire phenomenal effect-of-meaning of his theoretical edifice. We should also understand the Jones interruption of the 1936 IPA delivery of the mirror stage paper in a similar vein, reading this episode as a unique point in the literating structure of Lacan’s life which does not harbor a hidden meaning to be unearthed in a pursuit of alternative explanations and interpretations.

This interruption certainly acted as a traumatic cut and thereby introduced a troubling gap, but for all that it should not be seen as something that must now be filled in with meaningful discourse (as a hermeneutical phenomenological strategy would have us do). Rather, this episode is something which must be “kept open” and seen as a radical point of non-meaning which simply generates the effect-of-meaning of subsequent re-workings of the mirror stage. Moreover, these re-workings should not be simply read as efforts to deal with an unresolved “deep” trauma. Doing so would overlook a crucial point that Lacan endeavors to articulate in his 1950s texts: subjectivity and structure are intimately intertwined and constitutively so.

Ultimately, what is disturbing about such points is that they involve a self-relating subjectivity. This is the ultimate lesson that the Lacan of the 1950s teaches us, that if the subject is nothing more than the metaphoric effect of the signifier, this must mean that the subject is both constituted by and plays an active constitutive role in the “external” symbolic system to which it is subject. In other words, the subject is simultaneously subject to and subject of that system. But it is not until the 1970s that Lacan fully articulates the paradoxical logic surrounding the constitution of subjectivity and this has crucial implications with respect to the subject’s engagement with texts.

William J. Urban holds an MA and PhD in Humanities from York University, as well as a BA and MA in Economics from St. John Fisher College and the University of Toronto.  He is the author of Lacan and Meaning: Sexuation, Discourse Theory, and Topology in the Age of Hermeneutics, published in 2015.

Featured image credit: “The Place I Remember,” Robert Andler Lipski, CC BY-SA 4.0.


[1] “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter'” (1955); “The Freudian Thing” (1955); “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” (1957); “On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” (1957); “The Signification of the Phallus” (1958); “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” (1960).

[2] Increasingly for Lacan, Borromean topology is not a representation of structure, but rather is that structure.

[3] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 69-70.

[4] Ibid.552, 895.

[5] Ibid., 546, 728. See Miller’s index (895) for additional references to the supremacy of the signifier over the signified.

[6] Ibid., 427-28.

[7] Ibid., 808.

[8] Ibid., 723.

[9] Ibid., 647-84: “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation: “Psychoanalysis and Personality Structure'” (1958).

[10] Ibid., 675, 678.

[11] Ibid., 905. See Miller’s commentary on Lacan’s optical figures.

[12] Ibid., 571, 552.

[13] Ibid., 677.

[14] Ibid., 521.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “This algorithm is the following: It is read as follows: signifier over signified, ‘over’ corresponding to the bar separating the two levels.” Ibid., 497.

[17] Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 83.

[18] Lacan, Écrits, 501, 495.

[19] Ibid., 495.

[20] We thus have an early indication of what the later Lacan will understand as the subversive real element in any signifying dyad. As Fink suggests, Lacan’s 1950’s formulations of the difference between the letter and the signifier are best read retroactively from the standpoint of a statement made in 1971 from Seminar XVIII: “The letter is in the real and the signifier is in the symbolic.” (Lacan to the Letter, 75.) The real of the letter is precisely what Lacan means by his famous “materiality of the signifier” emphasized in his groundbreaking reading of Poe’s text “The Purloined Letter.” (Lacan, Écrits, 24.)

[21] Fink, Lacan to the Letter, 96.

[22] “[D]ream images are to be taken up only on the basis of their value as signifiers, that is, only insofar as they allow us to spell out the ‘proverb’ presented by the oneiric rebus. The linguistic structure that enables us to read dreams is at the crux of the ‘signifierness of dreams.'” Lacan, Écrits, 510.

[23] Ibid., 515.

[24] As with metonymy, Lacan provides a complex formula for metaphor, defined as the “place of the subject” and then provides psychoanalytic strategies to deal with it since “symptom is a metaphor.” Ibid., 516, 528.

[25] This term is variously translated as the text’s signifierness or literality or literating structure throughout Lacan’s discussion of Freudian dream analysis in the section “The Letter in the Unconscious.” Ibid., 509ff.

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