Monday, November 27, 2006

The For Somebody of Language

Lacan writes:

The whole ambiguity of the sign derives from the fact that it represents something for someone. This someone may be many things, it may be the entire universe, in as much as we have know for some time that information circulates in it, as a negative of entropy. Any node in which signs are concentrated, in so far as they represent something, may be taken for a someone. What must be stressed at the outset is that a signifier is that which represents a subject for another signifier.

The signifier, producing itself in the field of the Other, makes manifest the subject of its signification. But it functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it call the subject to function, to speak, as subject. There, strictly speaking, is the temporal pulsation in which is established that which is the characteristic of the departure of the unconscious as such–the closing.

(Four Fundamental Concepts, p.207)

I think my problem with this passage is that I simply lack imagination. For me, the for someone of the sign must refer to a somebody, a person who has a body and can speak, or, more generally, do signs. I cannot regard speech as a mere function while I know it as a praxis. Oh, it's terrible. I know. I just don't know how I'm going to get around it.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:55 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Fido,

You don't lack imagination - or intellectual clarity for that matter.

This passage from Lacan is pretentious obscurantism. It really doesn't make any sense.

You make more of that - i.e. sense.

Orla Schantz

November 27, 2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Thanks for the compliments, Orla. I don't go so far as to say Lacan is being obscurantist--but I'm not able to vigorously defend what I only dimly understand. I'll say this much: I call this passage an imaginative consequence of a view of signification that attributes agency to the system of signifiers. Lots of people hold this view or ones like it. And they seem able to communicate clearly enough amongst themselves, when they wish--though they have been unable to pierce my thickness, which you have so graciously described as akin to being sensible. So I basically think Lacan is trying to be imaginative here rather than obscure. That I find interesting.

November 27, 2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Orla, I'm surprised that a fan of Deleuze such as yourself would dismiss a thinker for not being immediately clear. It's not as if Deleuze is a walk in the park, and certainly much of what he claims appears as obscurantist nonsense to those who have not taken the time to work through his thought. Personally I find Deleuze and Guattari to be far worse with their abuse of style, but I'm pretentious like that, insofar as I'm suspicious of rhetorics that appeal to much to certain sentiments and which all too easily evoke certain self-congratulatory fantasies in their readers. Like any thinker, Lacan's specific system and terminology must be learned to be understood.

Fido, you misquote the last line in the first paragraph. Lacan remarks that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier. In the interest of indicating that Lacan is not obscurantism (generally we don't reject, as obscurantist, thinkers who have produced a sprawling practice), perhaps an example will help. Have you seen the film "King Ralph" starring John Goodman? Goodman's character Ralph has spent his life as an ordinary American, who generally lacked responsibility or any particular direction in life. One day, due to a freak photography accident, Goodman's character turns out to be the last surviving heir of the English royal family and becomes the King of England. Now all this time, Ralph had been walking about thinking of his world in one particular way, when, in fact, he had been royal blood. This *signifier* (the royal name) has an entire legal context, and imbued him with all sorts of responsibilities and characteristics that went well beyond his knowledge or life intentions. This is the manner in which Ralph is caught up in a signifying network that cannot simply be reduced to signs.

To give a more tragic example, I once new a girl in highschool who was adopted. She began dating a man and fell passionately in love with him. Later, after they had consummated their relationship, they both found out that biologically they were brother and sister. This is yet another example of being caught in the network of signifiers. They both shared the same family *name* that represented them for the legal system in a particular way, without being aware of it. Indeed, this could be taken as a modern day version of the Oedipus insofar as Oedipus was still bound by symbolic laws or relations (kinship relations) despite having no knowledge of the name that linked him to his mother and father.

A third example not having to do with kinship: When I defended my PhD my identity was "magically transformed" as now I was suddenly imbued with powers and rights that I didn't have previously. When my students relate to me, they do not relate to me as an individual person, so much as they relate to me as a symbolic function, or how my identity as "Doctor of Philosophy" is bound up with a legal and scholarly context that exceeds me. I might be quite substandard in my teaching and scholarship. There might be others without degrees (and this is a key point) that are asking far more interesting questions than me, who might know philosophy far better than me, and who might be far better teachers than me. But the lack of this *symbolic* identity nonetheless stands in the way of them enjoying the same rights and duties as me, despite the fact that qualitatively they are superior to me. Here I am not represented as a person or individual, nor by the signs I emit to another person, but rather purely as a symbolic function. Of course, this particular symbolic network is increasingly changing as a result of the net, but it's still operative today. Levi-Strauss's anthropology is absolutely crucial for understanding what Lacan is getting at here... Specifically his little book on Mauss, The Savage Mind, and The Elementary Structures of Kinship.

November 28, 2006 10:36 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Sinthome, thanks for the correction. You are of course right that Lacan's thinking here is informed by Levi-Strauss. That doesn't necessarily incline me to agree with him. I won't presume to tell you what powers of speech you have or what it means for you to speak "off the record," but generally I feel that official discourses are never telling the whole story, and this is one reason I am reserved about structuralism.

The ambiguity of the for someone strikes me as a rather novel idea. But it leads me in different direction. I think I can appreciate what Lacan is doing here, but it is difficult for me. Thanks again for keeping me honest, Sinthome.

November 29, 2006 9:37 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

After posting the remarks last night it occured to me that I should have asked "what are the conditions for the possibility of a slip of the tongue?" to elaborate the same basic idea. In a slip of the tongue, of course, I say one thing and intend something quite different. Freud gives a nice example at the beginning of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. There he discusses the president of the senate saying "I now pronounce this meaning *closed*" at the *beginning* of the session. Clearly the president intended to say "I now pronounce this meaning *open*", but something else came out. How is it possible for something to signify like this, despite the intention of the speaker? If this is possible, then signification must not be based on the *speakers intention*, but must be a dialogical event. The statement *still* signifies regardless of whether the speaker intended it to signify this. I take it that this is another way of understanding what Lacan has in mind when he claims that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier, and, further down in the same passage, when he speaks of the aphanisis or fading of the subject behind the signifier. The polysemous qualities of language always signify more than I intend to say, which is one way in which we are alienated or embroiled in language.

I think that Lacan's thesis is more modest than what you're attributing to him. Lacan would not disagree with the thesis that the official discourse is never the whole story. For instance, he distinguishes between ego (conscious) discourse and meaning and unconscious discourse (encountered in various symptoms and slips of the tongue). He need only establish that we are alienated in the domain of the symbolic in ways that is not strictly within the scope of our intentional control.

November 29, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Oh, that's a good illustration of your point ;-). This question, the conditions of possibility of slips of the tongue, anticipates where I intended to go next, but perhaps I'm already there. I wonder about aphanisis, and it seems to me that to grasp what Lacan has in mind by the disappearance of the subject behind the signifier we have to remember what he means by the subject. And I know how its accessible in Lacan's analysis--and here I think you are right in a sense about the modesty of Lacan's claim--but you see there is this problem of errors, and I do wonder whether Lacan isn't trying to miscommunicate something to me or vice-versa you know. Is it surprising that I found this passage provocative?

November 29, 2006 12:16 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"And I know how its accessible in Lacan's analysis--and here I think you are right in a sense about the modesty of Lacan's claim--but you see there is this problem of errors,"

Lacan is a profoundly dialogical thinker (this is especially clear in earlier works such as The Function and Field of Speech), so his point would be that meaning is constituted intersubjectively. I think this mitigates some of the problem of error.

"and I do wonder whether Lacan isn't trying to miscommunicate something to me or vice-versa you know. Is it surprising that I found this passage provocative?"

Yes and yes. To give the lame answer, Lacan, in Seminar 11, had opened his audience to the general public and was no longer lecturing primarily for practicing analysts who have a direct experience of psychoanalysis. With this shift, Lacan's style changed as well. Lacan's earlier seminars for analysts alone, while difficult, are often far more clear. With his new audience it seems that he found it necessary to enact the experience of the unconscious as well, lecturing in a style full of riddles, homonyms, paradoxes, outright contradictions, vague allusions, and so on. In this way the reader is forced to engage in a difficult interpretive work much like the work that an analyst must engage in when striving to unfold the various symptoms of the analysand. Consequently, Lacan's style is making just as much a theoretical point as the explicit theoretical points.

November 29, 2006 12:42 PM  

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