Jacques Lacan, French psychoanalyst, was one of the most significant figures in twentieth century thought. His new take on the work of Sigmund Freud caused an outcry that eventually led to him being stopped from being a member of the French Psychoanalytic Society. The Societe Franqaise de Psychanalyse, Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherches Freudiennes was formed by Lacan and others in opposition to the French Psychoanalytic Society, but this failed to be recognised by the International Psychoanalytic Association because of Lacan’s views on and admiration for the work of Freud, who had fallen out of favour among most psychoanalysts in English speaking countries by this time.
Lacan as a psychoanalyst used language to propose arguments about unconscious. At this time the idea that language was fundamental to human existence had become popular and Lacan used psychoanalysis to subvert the theories of de Saussure, who had published the seminal work Course in General Linguistics, in 1916. Lacan “uses psychoanalysis to disturb many of the key assumptions in linguistics and literary theory as well, particularly those relying on notions of language as transparent medium or vehicle of expression for concepts, linking ones subject’s ideas with another through communication” (Grosz 1989, p 19).
This was surprisingly easy for Lacan do with a background in psychoanalysis, because, after all, psychoanalysis is “the talking cure. Its contents are nothing but signs reduced to signifiers, its techniques consist purely in the verbal, playful techniques of language which make poetry possible; and the analysts function is that of interlocutor. Its objects, methods, processes and aims are shown by Lacan to be structurally identical with language itself” (Grosz 1989, p 24)
Lacan agreed with the propositions that were put forth in theoretical linguistics at the time by people such de Saussure, Wittgenstein, and Russell that language was the essence of humanity. His theories differed radically from theirs in that he proposed that language was not a device used by human beings as a system of communication, rather it was language that controlled human beings. Lacan, with his style of writing even challenged the popular notion of what language was for, as he intentionally made his writing “notorious for its ambiguity and its intentional obscurity. Given that Lacan’s aim was to challenge the common-sense idea that language exists in order to communicate and is instead the very material of subjectivity, it seems logical that he chose to use language himself in the most intense and self-conscious way” (Mansfield 2000, p 38-9).
This idea that language is a controlling force over human beings is at the heart of all of Lacan’s writings. Probably his most important discussion of this is his theory of the split subject. With this theory Lacan lays out his reasons for why he believes that language comes before human beings and is the basis for subjectivity.
Lacan begins by examining young children. He talks about children between the ages of six and eighteen months, which Lacan feels is a fundamental time to the development of subjectivity in human beings. It is during this stage, which Lacan calls the mirror stage, that a child will see their own image for the first time reflected back to them. For Lacan, this moment is when a child first becomes aware that it is a human being; that the “jubilant assumption of his specualar image by the child at the infans stage” (Lacan 1977, p 1164) is a realization made before the acquisition of language.
The child is not quite able to understand what is happening at the time “Because this stage, in its simplest terms, is part of the psychoanalytic problem of identification, Lacan locates the individual’s anticipation of the self in this moment, and invests it with all the complex emotions and intellections that go into one’s future relations between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt” (Kurzweil 1981, p 425)
So, in the mirror stage subjectivity begins to develop after the child sees “an image of itself from outside itself” (Mansfield 2000, p 42). The child moves from the fragmented ‘body-in-bits-and-pieces’, to a more subjective idea of the self and of the world. Seeing the reflected image of the self allows the child to form an image and self-identity based on the world they are beginning to experience in a visual way.
After this experience, the child will begin to move into what Lacan called the symbolic stage. The child will naturally want to form an image of the ‘I’ and the only way to accomplish this is through the same societal ways of all human beings – linguistically. Grosz has said that this is the period that distinguishes humans from animals. The animal must develop its instincts for survival at an early age, whereas “in place of the survival value of instinctual behaviour, the human must rely on language…The social and linguistic orders function in place of the instinctual in human existence” (Grosz 1990, p 33).
The image of the self that the child develops as it grows into maturity is not a real construct, though. The self-identity that has been acquired is still based around the image reflected back at it from the mirror, thus it is the mirror that controls and has power over the image. The reflected image is what has been developed and it is not the person that has developed it themselves through their own actions and experiences, it has been put onto them from the outside, by another. The human being “does not define itself. Instead, it is defined by something other than itself. Put in pure Lacanian terms, the subject is the discourse of the other” (Mansfield 2000, p 43)
The end of the mirror stage is with “the assumption of the armour of alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subjects entire mental development” (Lacan 1977, p 1166). By this, Lacan means that you will have taken upon yourself as a self-identity that is not really true. You are using an external image for self-identity. Therefore, if you are basing your self-identity on an external image your own self-identity must also be external to you. In this state it is impossible to fully, truly understand who the real ‘you’ is. In this state “sense of self is outside of you, projected at you from a world over which you have minimal control. The system of meanings and identities from which your selfhood derives is not your own” (Mansfield 2000, p 43). This is what Lacan means by the symbolic order.
Lacan says that with the use of the word ‘I’ we try to add to the sense of the self; that we attempt to define ourselves in this pronoun, but this is impossible as it is an indefinable word, meaning as it does whoever it is that utters it and has been in existence long before the speaker had even heard of it themselves. By the use of language we are giving ourselves over to the symbolic order because the system that we have built up forces us to submit ourselves to it and to lose our identity, that our “sense of itself is lost in the very field of signs that seemed to provide it in the first place. It is the paradox that governs human subjectivity” (Mansfield 2000, p 44).
As linguistic theory was such an important part of Lacan’s psychoanalysis, it seems to be appropriate to make some small criticisms of his writings from the perspective of the modern field of linguistics. Since Lacan wrote about the mirror stage originally some new theories about human language have been devised.
Firstly, Lacan contends that language pre-dates human beings, that “Language existed before any of us were born, and we must locate ourselves in the field of language in order to take up a place in the human world” (Mansfield 2000, p 39). This theory is at odds with Chomskyan (in Osiatynski, 1984) theories of language acquisition. Chomsky is a Content Nativist, a group who believe when a child is born, it is born with knowledge in place.
Simply put, Chomsky took the view that language must be an innate ability. He said that because languages are so complex and abstract, children would not have the kind of experience necessary to learn them; therefore, parts of language, such as grammar, must be innate.
There are arguments that Chomsky supplied to support his argument, namely, that children all go through the same developmental milestones no matter what language they are learning. Children acquire language quickly and easily, despite what is known as the poverty of the stimulus: the fact that children constantly hear ungrammatical or incomplete utterances, or slips of the tongue. The child will still acquire grammatical language even though it will never have been told what is or is not grammatical.
These arguments led Chomsky to propose that each human has a language acquisition device. This would mean that language acquisition is indeed innate, and therefore could not have been constructed after human society began. It may have changed and developed, but it has always been there.
A second criticism of Lacan could be made with reference to people who do not actually have any language. Modern linguistics agrees with Lacan that language is not primarily used for communication, but argues instead that it was originally used for entirely different reasons. The language of thought hypothesis, championed by Fodor and Harman as well as others, says that language, first and foremost, is a system of internal thought and a means of communication second.
A good example of what is meant by this can be seen in Oliver Sachs book, Seeing Voices. This novel concerns deaf people that were introduced to language in late childhood. The story of Theophilus d’Estrella is recounted, who began learning language at the age of nine. He recalled his thought process before he had acquired any language and claimed that he thought mostly in pictures and signs. He told of one memory of how, to him, “the briny sea is the urine of a great Sea-God, and the moon a goddess in the sky” (2011, 42). He goes on to say that the acquisition of language helped him to think more elaborate thoughts, but clearly “his narrative tends to discountenance the notion that no abstract thought is possible without words” (2011, 42).
The implications of this are that children develop in a similar way whether they are exposed to language or not. The implication of this for the language of Lacan, and it is only reinforced if you also consider Chomsky’s theory alongside it, is that if people with communicative language and without it are this similar, then language cannot be a societal, alienating construct. It is impossible to be alienated by something that you are born with and that is inside of you. Language is a naturally occurring thing within human beings. Communicative language may be subjective in societal terms, but the internal language that is innate to all of us is not.
Fodor, J.. The Language of Thought, New York: Crowell, 1975.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London; New York, Routeledge, 1990.
Harman, G.. Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Kurzweil, Edith. “Jacques Lacan: French Freud”. Theory and Society 10.3 (1981): pp. 419-438. < http://www.jstor.org.eproxy.ucd.ie/stable/pdfplus/657471.pdf?acceptTC=true>
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1163-9.
Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New York: NYU Press, 2000.
Osiatynski, W.. Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1984.
Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices. Canada: Knopf, 2011.