Patricia McCarthy – The Economies of the Subject Serve Both Repression and the Signifier

THE LETTER 01 (Summer 1994) pages 103-110

Mindful of the theme for this Congress “The Subject of the Unconscious and Language”, I wish to confine this communication to a clinical demonstration -yes, in the way physicians demonstrate clinical signs -a demonstration of the action of the signifier on the subject. The signifier, as we know, is any inert element of language which unconscious meaning borrows to communicate itself.

When a neurologist, let’s say, wants to demonstrate a palsy or a paralysis of the seventh cranial nerve, which journeys from the base of the brain through the skull to serve the muscles of the face, he asks the patient to smile and there will be a drooping of the mouth on the side of the paralysed nerve, confirming the palsy. In psychoanalysis, paralysis of the action of the signifier has equally devastating results. But unlike a nerve which can be irreversibly damaged, the signifier which cannot be destroyed, can be specifically activated in analysis, to undo a certain spancelling of the subject. If you have seen Arnold Schwartzneggar in the movies about “The Terminator”, the indestructibility of this machine which masquerades as a man, will give you some idea of the durability of the signifier.

So, if I introduce this talk as a clinical demonstration, it is borrowed from the analysis of a young woman suffering from an anxiety hysteria. One of her symptoms of phobic intensity was a fear of the devil. She was afraid that at night the devil would enter her room while she was asleep. This fear was at its height when she spent time in her parents’ house, and could only be coped with if her mother slept with her to keep her safe. In her own apartment, however, she could manage to sleep alone if she kept…


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