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Reconsidering the Significance of Structuralism in Lacan's Thought

The Letter, Issue 25, Summer 2002, Pages 39 - 75



Adrian Johnston

Despite the formidable size of his oeuvre, spanning a period from 1932 to 1980, Lacan is frequently summarized with reference to a single statement: 'The unconscious is structured like a language.' Both critics and disciples of Lacanian thought usually assert that Lacan's primary theoretical contribution consists of a linguistic turn wherein the energetic, libidinal unconscious of Freud is transformed into a formalizable, symbolic structure. To some, this 'linguistification' of the unconscious represents a necessary overcoming of Freud's inappropriate reliance upon nineteenth century biology and physics. To others who are less sympathetic, Lacan's claim to be the sole initiator of an orthodox 'return to Freud' is refuted by his misguided effort to reformulate Freudian metapsychology within the parameters of Saussurian structural linguistics, an effort supposedly foreign to Freud's own vision of the psyche.

When Lacan invokes linguistics, he almost always utilizes Saussure's terminology. In particular, the Lacanian unconscious is composed of (or, is 'structured like') 'signifiers'. Opponents of Lacan claim that his position is incompatible with Freudian theory; in distinguishing between word- presentations (Wortvorstellungen) and thing-presentations (Sachvorstellungen), the unconscious consisting of the latter alone, Freud denies the notion that the unconscious contains linguistic units of any sort. Resolving the debates between the defenders and detractors of Lacanian theory's references to structural linguistics requires answering two central questions. First, are the terms 'signifier' and 'word-presentation' synonymous? Second, is the structure revealed by linguistics itself entirely linguistic, that is to say, is 'structure' strictly co-extensive with language per se? The first question necessitates discussing several topics: the Freudian understanding of the place of language in the psyche, the relation between Freud's view of language and that of Saussure, and, finally, Roman Jakobson's modifications of Saussure as the source of Lacan's conception of the signiher. The second question prompts an examination of a series of distinctions drawn by Lacan during the later 'post-structuralist' period of his teaching (mainly in the 1970s), in particular, the difference between la langue and le langage (both are usually translated into English as language') as well as that between sens ('meaning') and signifiance ('signifier-ness').

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