Adrian Johnston – In Language More than Language Itself – Reconsidering the Significance of Structuralism in Lacan’s Thought

THE LETTER 25 (Summer 2002) pages 39-75

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…

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