Literary Criticism 101: Lacan’s Post-Structuralist Views through His Psychoanalytical Lens

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst influenced by post-structuralist theories. He had an interest in paranoia and wrote several articles about it, including his doctoral thesis, which focused on one of his patients. Figures such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jacobson heavily influenced Lacan’s work. He is very well known for developing the concept of mirror stage. In the 50s, he challenged the conventions of his field by proposing an emphasis on the unconscious as the nucleus of our being. His reputation rests mainly on his published seminars “Les Écrits” which were an extended lecture for graduate level students. During his seminars he was improvisational, performative and fascinating. He was known to associate rather than analyze. The vast output of Lacanian Theory has not all been of equal interest to the literary critics but there is major interest in the following: “The Insistence on the Letter” and his seminars on “The Purloined Letter” and “Hamlet”.


Lacan in Rome, Italy circa 1974. Photographer: Fausto Giaccone
Lacan in Rome, Italy circa 1974. Photographer: Fausto Giaccone

Lacan and Language

In his essay “The Insistence on the Letter”, he begins by paying homage to the intellectual dominance of Language studies. Lacan was a direct influence of Saussurean linguistics, of structuralism and post-structuralism. He argues that the analyst depends on the words that the patient says. Language is central to the examination of the unconscious and the unconscious is an orderly network as complex as the structure of a language itself. According to Lacan, what the psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious is the whole structure of language because the unconscious is accessible only through language and therefore it is determined by the structures of language. The unconscious itself is structured like a language. 

How is Language Structured? Saussure shows that meaning in language is a matter of contrast between words and other words, not between words and things. The meaning of words comes from how they differ in meaning from other words. Meaning is a network of differences, and there is a perpetual barrier between signifier and signified. Hence, if signifiers only relate to one another then language is detached from external reality and becomes an independent realm. Lacan argues that the unconscious is linguistic in structure. The two dream work mechanisms identified by Freud, which are condensation and displacement, correspond to the basic poles of language, namely metaphor and metonymy. In metonymy, one thing represents another by means of the part standing for the whole. In condensation, several things might be compressed into one symbol just as a metaphor. He goes on to emphasize the linguistic aspect of Freud’s work: whenever the unconscious is being discussed, the amount of linguistic analysis increases since puns, allusions, and other kinds of wordplay are often the mechanisms which manifest the content of the unconscious.


Saussure, Ferdinand de 2011. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Saussure's theory on language: signifier and signified

In Western philosophy, the conscious mind has long been regarded as the essence of selfhood. This view is encapsulated by the proclamation of the philosopher Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”. The mention of the Cartesian subject is the belief that the person is existent due to their mental faculty, their mind is their center, and it determines their being. Lacan challenges this philosophical consensus by reversing this into “I am where I think not” that is, in the unconscious, where true selfhood lies. The logical conclusion of Freud’s unconscious is “the self’s radical ex-centricity to itself". Hence, the self is ‘deconstructed', shown to be merely a linguistic effect, not an essential entity. The unconscious, then, is the center of our being, like a language, and language exists as a structure before the individual enters into it. Thus language precedes us. “I think where I am not, I am where I think not”. Lacan came up with three stages that correspond to how we emerge into consciousness: the imaginary stage, the mirror stage, and the symbolic stage. In the imaginary stage, we exist before a sense of self emerges, this is the age between 0-6 months. The young child exists in a stage in which there is no distinction between self and other and there is a kind of idealized identification with the mother. Then there is the mirror stage between the age of six months and eighteen months when the child sees its own reflection in the mirror and begins to conceive of itself as a unified being, separate from the rest of the world. The child starts to see itself as a whole. Then there is the symbolic stage which is when the child enters into the language system, essentially a system which is concerned with separation - crucial Lacanian concepts - since language names what is not present and substitutes a linguistic sign for it. This stage also marks the beginning of socialization, with its prohibitions and restraints, associated with the figure of the father. This distinction between the Imaginary and the Symbolic has been used extensively in literary studies, for instance, by French feminist critics. In terms of the literary polarization between the realist and the anti-realist text, the Symbolic realm would have to be seen as the one found in realist literature, a world of patriarchal order and logic. By contrast, the anti-realist text represents the realm of the Imaginary, a world in which language gestures beyond itself, beyond logic and grammar, rather in the way that poetic language often does. Indeed, the contrast between the Imaginary and the Symbolic might be seen as analogous to that between poetry and prose. The two realms must always co-exist.


The mirror stage
The mirror stage

Lacan and Psychoanalysis Lacan is known as the "French Freud". At the heart of Freudian theory is Eros (or sexuality) and the story of Oedipus. With Freud and Eros we know that the child is born from desire and sexual desire is primary. So Eros is the motivating factor that makes the whole psychic machinery work. At the beginning of life, we exist in the oral stage and the child in this stage is in a state of sexual bliss: he is at the mother’s breast receiving nourishment in a sexual relationship not only with the mother but he believes with the whole world. There is a primary oneness with the universe. As he grows older, he is torn away from that bliss and the child enters into the genital or phallic stage; he becomes aware of his own penis and concludes that his sister has been castrated by the father due the lack of a penis. This realization is caused by his desire to go back to that primal blissful state, that sexual union with the mother but he can’t, because by now he has noticed that he has a father who prevents him, who is already in a sexual relationship with the mother and stands between him and his desire threateningly. Many people found two main problems at the center of Freud’s theory. First, it is sexist and male-centered. Second, it is sexual, as if the secret center of all that we are, is our sexuality and only that. In re-reading Freud’s Oedipus story, Lacan addresses and solves these two problems. 

Lacan and Desire Lacan’s version of Eros is desire and hence, just like Freud, Lacan believes that the child is born into desire which makes the psychic machine work. For Lacan, this desire is more than sexual: it is part of it but it isn’t the entirety of it. 


Lacanian graph of desire
Lacanian graph of desire

The Real We cannot experience the world directly. All we can experience is a mental event. I see or feel some phenomenon and interpret it, thus what I experience is the interpretation. I cannot get behind the interpretation and experience the world in a raw, unmediated way. The interpretations, everything we know of the world, are made up of two things: language and images. Experience is language and images. Since language is more controlled and precise while images are dreamy and vague, I experience language as somehow secondary, artificial and the images as primary and basic. Both language and images according to Lacan are false. All these mental events are approximations. The real, according to Lacan, is something we cannot know but we have an obscure sense of it. It is that thing we yearn for but we do not know exactly what it is. Desire for Lacan comes out from the imbalance between what we perceive (language and images) and what actually is. This enormous discrepancy is the primary fact of our mental life, like a constant imbalance or vertigo. This is the main thing that motivates everything according to Lacan. It is impossible to satisfy this desire because we cannot know what we want. The real is utterly unknowable. This longing is displaced, so we long for everything else to replace it. Sex, food and material objects are things that we try to fill the void of desire with, but we are not satisfied by any of these things because as soon as the desire is fulfilled, it vanishes and becomes strangely unsatisfactory. Soon another desire arises. We are in a constant state of desire that is, once fulfilled, replaced by another that we hope will satisfy the lack we have, but it never does.


Oneness with the world
A baby inside a womb: Oneness with the world, the only time we experience the real

Freud’s sexual Eros becomes the more abstract desire. For Freud, Oedipus is a conflict centered on sexuality between mother and father. For Lacan, it is a conflict located in desire between the two things we use to make up the world: images (mother) and language (father). What causes this conflict is the fact that we are born too soon. It is generally stated that humans come into the world too early, some believe it is because of our big brains. Most animals are born with considerable functionality: they are able to eat, walk, and to some extent they are independent from their mother. By contrast, humans emerge helpless, they are completely dependent on their mother for months after birth, as if they were still in the womb. In the beginning, the child, irrespective of sex, has no language or images and thus knows no concepts or distinctions. There is no difference between child and environment and in particular, between the child and the source of nourishment, the bottle or the breast. The world has no categories for the young child, it is not divided, as if the baby is still in the womb. The sense of self in the child is synonymous with their universe. As adults, we have a clear and constantly maintained distinction between the sense of “I” and the rest of the world. The world to us begins immediately at the outside of our skin and goes on forever. This experience of oneness resembles the real but it is not the same, and therefore is satisfying. The child thinks that this is the world and that he has it all, but simultaneously there are phenomena that keep happening that contradicts this, because the child isn’t in the womb and is aware of pleasure and displeasure, of pain and hunger and the food not being there. None of this can be felt as separate from the self. One needs to make a detachment between the self and the world to be aware of how and what one is and what everything else is. Therefore, we need to acquire a self-image and Lacan summarizes this process in a metaphoric event called “the mirror phase”, when the child sees a reflection of itself in the mirror. The child will usually do two things: it will recognize that the image presented is an image of itself, and it will laugh because there seems to be some sort of pleasure in this realization, the revelation of the self. Lacan says that when the child sees itself in the mirror, it will realize that “it’s me”. The “me” here is at once safely inside the skin and there outside the skin in the glass reflection. So now there is a dual understanding of the world, the “me” that is within the skin and the “me” that is in the mirror. The image in the mirror is what others see, hence objectified, and with this comes the realization that there is an inside and an outside. With that comes another realization, “what am I like? I now have an image of me to live by, a primary image against which I can compare all other images out there, that are either me or not me. I am entering into the world of images.” Lacan calls this the imaginary. Through the mirror stage we enter the imaginary realm of constructing our identity through images because we become aware of the fact that, aside from what is within you, there is an image of you reflected to the world.   


World famous scholars in one picture: Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others.
World famous scholars in one picture: Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others.

The Imaginary The most important images are the ones we use to make up our self-image. This self-image is false and is made up of things that are not us; it is an image, not a reality. It builds in the child’s mind, it seems more and more real as the child sees more images. It creates a “me” out of something that is not. This image that the child creates for itself is called, according to Lacan, “l’hommelette”. This hommelette is made out of fragmentary images, but there is another essential ingredient to it, at the center of every person: the motivating force which is desire. Surrounded by this desire, we make ourselves out of the expectations of others, out of what others want us to be. The “other” at this point is the mother who is also full of desire. A major component of the landscape in which we are born into is the mother’s desire that the child cannot satisfy. The child’s desire is to regain that primordial oneness with the mother that it had in the womb or while breastfeeding. However, this cannot be satisfied. What we have is a botched concept of the self, a monster, an hommelette made of illusions and desire that surround the child like a hard skin. The child feels: “it is me, it protects me, it keeps me safe but actually it is not me at all but a contradiction of me, a hard, awkward, clumsy approximation made up of what my mother wants of me. It prevents me from being happy and free”. For Lacan, the primary environment of the child as it enters into the imaginary is the mother’s desire.

The Symbolic


The symbolic stage marks the beginning of socialization, with its restraints associated with the figure of the father. It is associated with the child entering the language system. If true selfhood relies in the unconscious, entering the language system marks the consciousness, thus the lack. The imaginary can resurface in dreams and fiction, and the desire for the real becomes hidden. Language comes with the child’s increasing awareness of the father which cuts him from the dreamy bliss, hence the concept of castration. The voice of the father becomes the conscience who says "no". The replacement of the big desire is called "Objet petit a". For instance, we replace our initial deep desires with another one that is socially acceptable. For example, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet's deep buried desire is his own mother. He projects it on Ophelia, who becomes his "Objet petit a". To sum up, Lacan’s desire revolves around the mother’s unfulfillable desire for the child and the child’s unfulfillable desire for the mother. All of this is loosely located in the dreamy unreliable landscape of the imaginary. Once the child has acquired knowledge and realized the multiplicity of things, then the overall sense of oneness with the mother and the even deeper desire for the real are lost and become unconscious. Not only have we lost something wonderful, important but also we can’t possibly know what it is that we want because we cannot express it in language because it doesn’t exist in language. The imaginary can surface in dreams and fiction but desire for the real is deeply hidden. With this Lacanian perspective, sex is decentered from everything. It’s not about sex but a deeper desire which includes all desire that drives us on.   References:

Boothby, R. (2014). Death and Desire (RLE: Lacan): Psychoanalytic Theory in Lacan's Return to Freud. Routledge.


Brown, T. (2008). Desire and drive in researcher subjectivity: The broken mirror of Lacan. Qualitative Inquiry, 14(3), 402-423.


Evans, D. (2006). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Routledge.


Homer, S. (2004). Jacques Lacan. Routledge.


Picture References:

https://redpsicoanalitica.org/2021/04/13/estamos-aqui-para-todo-lo-contrario-para-saber/amp/

https://blogs.cofc.edu/literature/2016/01/19/2548/

https://mistahsaxton.weebly.com/lacans-mirror.html

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.businessinsider.com/fetus-vision-hearing-development-uterus-2016-9%3famp

http://t.co/TaHqLBkoQ1


Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

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