The Unconscious is structured like a Language

Lacan borrows some ideas of linguistics that Freud did not have access to. As we have seen, Saussure showed that a sign is not necessarily something that connects a word or name to a thing, but is in fact something which connects a sound or image to a concept. The sound or image is called a signifier. The concept is called a signified. Meaning is produced not only by the relationship between the signifier and the signified but also, crucially, by the position of the signifiers in relation to other signifiers (in a given context). When Saussure’s theory is put together with Freud’s it is not difficult to see that the movement of signifiers, which generates meaning, must remain fundamentally unconscious. Meaning may only have a place in what Lacan calls “the signifying chain.” So the signifier has primacy over the signified, which means that meaning is generated not by the normal meaning of a word but by the place the word has in a signifying chain.

Lacan turns the formulation on its head:



Henceforth the unconscious, sexuality and fantasy can be pictured as the Signifier over the signified. The unconscious is constituted in the same way as our intrinsic ability to speak. Desire is left always unsatisfied and is either displaced from signifier to signifier or it is substituted for—one signifier for another—and the whole process makes up a “chain of signifiers,” which remains unconscious but which, like the unconscious, leaves traces of itself, traces which may be read.

Metonymy follows the horizontal line of signifiers, which never cross the bar (of repression) that leads to the signified and to signification. Just as desire is always deferred from one object to the next, so the signifier suspends signification while following the horizontal chain. Each signifier that fails to cross the bar has exactly the same meaning. If signifies lack (desire).

The Unconscious is structured like a La…