10 November 2006

Desiring Subjects

Recently I had the good fortune to come across Fido the Yak's excellent blog. Not only is this blog outstanding for the depth and earnestness of its philosophical content, but I also have a soft spot for it as he was kind enough to post my papers on Transcendental Empiricism and the Transcendental Field a year or so ago. In a recent post Fido the Yak takes Judith Butler to task for her account of subjectivization and her thesis that social norms mediate and precede dyadic self-other relations. I have no real commitment to Judith Butler, nor is she a major theoretical reference for me. I've read Gender Trouble, Excitable Speech, and once taught The Psychic Life of Power (which was a disaster), but she is not a theorist who often comes to mind when I think about social and political theory. However, it does strike me that Butler's thesis is very close to Lacan's account of the role that language plays in the structuration of desire. Thus, while I might not be "Butlerian", I do endorse some variant of this thesis.

What strikes me as missing in this criticism is the recognition that the infant is alienated in language from the beginning. That is, prior to the infant being born there is already a discourse woven about the infant, articulating why the parents desire (or do not desire) the child. Now it is true that the child can repudiate this discourse as it grows older. However, what it cannot do is refuse to take an attitude towards this discourse altogether. If I was born to be the engineer my father was never able to become, and if this desire is manifested in engineering toys being bought for me, being referred to as "daddy's little engineer", and so on, I can certainly reject this destiny, but this negation is still formative of my sense of self as a subject. Now, we can argue that this relation is still dyadic as it is a relation between child and parent. However, this misses the point that the parent as well is caught up in these symbolic relations in a way that exceeds their intentionality. I wrote about these properties of the signifier long ago elsewhere, so I'll post them here to make my point, as it would be silly to rewrite the argument all over again. Very roughly the argument is that the intersubjective nature of the signifier or symbolic systems is such that it exceeds our conscious intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) and embroils us in certain forms of social relations regardless of whether we're aware of it. For instance, the newborn infant dressed in blue is treated different by those about it, than one dressed in pink. Niether the infant nor the people interacting with the infant degree this principle, yet those interacting with the infant immediately treat it as a boy, and the infant unware that it's embroiled in a signifier (blue as opposed to pink), must respond to how it is treated.

Signifying Nothing

How, then, are we to conceive the nature of the signifier and why is it of such crucial importance for our understanding of social relations and the manner in which the subject relates to itself? Perhaps the best metaphor for thinking about the nature of the signifier would be to think of it as a sort of virus or alien invader that always places us out of step with both the world around us, our own needs and our relationship to our own psychic states. Not only is the signifier like the uncanny body snatchers that inhabit our bodies while leaving us in appearance exactly as we were before, the signifier casts its net over the entire world, decisively transforming it, enabling the possibility of lack and absence where there was no such possibility before. As we'll see in a bit, the signifier introduces the possibility of lack into the world, because it introduces a system of positions or places into being in which something might be present or absent (Lacan's mustard pots that are built around a void). With the signifier, objet a is born.

As Lacan suggests in Seminar Five, Les formations de l'inconscient, our desire is cuckold by language; which is to say our desire is never simply related to the object that we desire. In fact, in these early seminars organized around the dialectic of need, demand and desire, Lacan will go so far as to say that our relationship to all objects is mediated first by our relationship to the Other. My desire must first pass through the circuit of the Other-- it must manifest itself as desire OF the Other --before it can be a desire FOR an object.

The signifier is thus neither the subject's mental states or representations nor an object out there in the world, but is rather a third entity (or better yet, a third in the form of a system of relations) that intervenes BETWEEN the organism and the world, mediating the relations that obtain among the two. This third domain (what Lacan calls the symbolic) is not a mental entity because it is transubjective or social (meaning the psychic individual does not create language and the codes of culture, but finds herself enmeshed within these codes from the very moment she is born), but it is also not an object because a signifier (as Derrida has pointed out and as Lacan emphasizes) is not a thing that can be seen, touched, held or even heard (as Saussure reminds us, the signifier is not the actual sounds we hear in speech). Rather, the signifier is a bundle of differential relations organized into a system. For this reason, we can never say "this is a signifier", because it's impossible for a signifier to appear alone. Unlike a rock that can appear all by itself, a signifier is such that any so-called individual signifier (which is already a metaphorical or analogical way of speaking which invites confusion of the signifier with sound) already entails the entire system of signifiers. For if the signifier only arrives at its identity through its difference to other signifiers, then it follows that no signifier can appear without implying immediately these other relations.

In the Course in General Linguistics, Saussure remarks that, "A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a 'material' element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions" (98). Saussure here makes two decisive points. First, Saussure rejects the common notion that the sign is primarily a referential entity or that it serves to represent objects or states-of-affairs in the world. Where C.S. Peirce had defined a sign as that which stands for something in some respect or capacity, thus emphasizing the indexical/referential nature of the sign (this is not quite fair to Peirce), Saussure distinguishes the sign from objects in the world. If, claims Saussure, the sign refers to anything, it is not the object but rather a concept. And for good reason.

As Derrida points out in "Signature Event Context", the condition for the possibility of something functioning as language/code is that it must be able to SIGNIFY in the ABSENCE of that which it signifies. In other words, a message must be able to 1) convey its message in the absence of the object it denotes (as seen, for example, when a friend tells me the story of what happened to him at the post office. I receive his message even though I wasn't there to witness the event), and 2) a message must be able to convey its message in the absence of the person sending the message (meaning is not intention. I must be able to understand a letter even though the person sending the message isn't present to me). Consequently, the mark of language is not its referential capacity, but rather its ability to signify in the absence of objects and persons signified. Here, already, we find Lacan's notion of aphanisis in a latent form. If I disappear behind the signifier, if I come to be alienated in the signifier, then this is because I can never be identical to my name and the discourse I weave around my name. These signifiers already imply my absence, alienation or fading.

The second important point to be observed in the above passage is Lacan's distinction between sound and sound-pattern. The signifier is not the actual sound that we hear when we speak to another person, but the sound-pattern organizing this sound. The sound-pattern is a trace belonging to a bundle of traces, and functions to organize a language into a system that renders signification possible. Thus, for instance, if we take the two terms "bat" and "cat", we can see that they differ in respect of a single sound /b/at and /c/at, such that this one minimal difference produces a transformation in the signification of the word (Freud's logic of parapraxes IS a logic of these minimal differences). The signifier here is not "b" nor is it "c", but rather "b/c". That is, the difference between "b" and "c" or the differential relation between these terms. We individuate one language from another on the basis of these differential relations. Thus, while the German language may well indeed have the graphic letter "b" just like English, the difference between German and English is found on the basis of how these phonemes are organized in differential relations with other phonemes of the language. Linguistic competence consists in the ability to be able to make use of these minimal differences in producing effects of signification. Thus, it is not the phenomenon of "meaning" that individuates languages, but rather meaning is an EFFECT of these non-meaning networks of differential relations.

Lacan radicalizes these Saussurean insights in a manner that is already implied in Saussure's Course. First, in Seminar IX, L'identification, Lacan distinguishes between the sign and the signifier in a manner that is decisive for understanding cultural formations and psychic structures. According to Lacan, where a sign represents SOMETHING for SOMEONE (and is thus a psychological entity or mental representation) a signifier presents nothing but a difference and thus entails that the thing is effaced (Seminar of 12.6.61). The signifier is, according to Lacan's well chosen mode of expression, a trace that effaces itself as a trace. In order to follow Lacan on this point, we must bear in mind that the notion of a trace refers to the concept of origins. When my pencil draws a line on a piece of paper, that line is a trace OF the pencil. Or, drawing on C.S. Peirce's famous example, smoke is a sign of fire. Smoke is the trace left by fire. A sign, then, attempts to present an origin of its trace. Lacan will often discuss how the neurotic thinks in terms of signs in that, in recounting their histories, they seek the origin of the traces characterizing their psychic structure, thereby failing to see how their symptom is a stupid effect of signifying structures that, strictly speaking, have no origin (here we have one of the meanings of subjective destitution). By contrast, to say that the signifier is a trace that effaces its status as a trace, is to say that the signifier has no origin or refers to no origin. In fact, from the first years of his seminar to the very end, Lacan will consistently argue that reference to the world is only possible on the basis of the signifier, not the reverse. In a very special sense that will be clarified in a moment, the world, for Lacan, is only possible on the basis of the signifier. The signifier is not a trace drawn from the world, but rather the world is a "trace" of the signifier (hence the necessity of distinguishing between reality and the real). It is for this reason that Lacan claims that the signifier is a presence of a difference. Like the difference between 0 and 1 or 0 and {0}, the difference is a minimal difference that refers to nothing but the relation between the elements, not a perception or object or mental representation.

As we saw above, Saussure claims that the sign is composed of a sound-pattern and a concept. It is this conception of the sign that Lacan calls into question. A concept is a psychological entity and thus unfit for scientific study or psychological investigation. The concept is forever beyond my grasp, such that I can never determine once and for all whether another subject does in fact share the same concept which I possess. Thus, in "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious", Lacan reverses the Saussurean algorithm for the sign, claiming that the sign can best be read as S/s which is to be read, signifier over the signified. Lacan claims that this reversal captures the essence of linguistics, remarking that "The major theme of this science is thus based, in effect, on the primordial disposition of the signifier and the signified as distinct orders initially separated by a barrier resisting signification" (Ecrits, Fink translation, 141). Consequently, unlike Saussure who holds that the sign conveys a signified, Lacan argues that the signified of the signifier cannot be directly grasped or apprehended in language. It is always marked by a bar that resists signification. Hence, Lacan will remark that, "We can take things no further along this path than to demonstrate that no signification can be sustained except by reference to another signification. This ultimately leads us to the remark that there is no existing language whose ability to cover the field of the signified can be called into question, one of the effects of its existence as a language being that it fulfills all needs there... And we will fail to sustain this question as long as we have not jettisoned the illusion that the signifier serves the function of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to justify its existence in terms of any signification whatsoever" (141-142). Here then we have Lacan's famous definition of the signifier: The signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier. The signifier does not represent a signified nor an object, but rather refers to other signifiers. As such, there is no metalanguage, for there is no view we can adopt outside of language that would allow us to survey language and master it.

However, why are these features of the signifier of such decisive importance. On the one hand, the relational nature of the signifier suggests that we can be caught up in relations and organizations that exceed our conscious intentions. This is what Lacan means when he claims that our desire is cuckold by language. For instance, a particular woman might be the conscious object of my desire, but my desire might function in this way precisely as a means of fulfilling the demands of kinship relations. While kinship organizations are the furthest thing from my mind, there seems to be a logic that exceeds me that incessantly pushes me in the direction of fulfilling my place in this logic as if it were a destiny. Simply by being named I become caught up in social and cultural logics of which I am not aware.

And this brings us to the second important feature of the signifier: The signifier introduces identities and places into the world. In one of the most powerful passages of his Course, Saussure raises the question of what constitutes synchronic identity. This is an ancient philosophical question and of central importance to anyone who is honestly interested in ideology, group formations and phenomena pertaining to nationalism and ethnic strife. The question of identity in its set theoretic, linguistic and philosophical formulations cannot be ignored. Classically the problem is formulated in terms of the famous ship of Tarsius thought experiment. Suppose that I have a beautiful wooden ship, the ship of Tarsius, and every day I remove one board of this ship and replace it by another. After, say, five years, it turns out that my ship is no longer made of any of the boards that originally composed it. Is my ship still the ship of Tarsius or is it another ship?

We can see what the question is: What constitutes the identity of the ship? What is it that constitutes the relation of sameness or being-identical throughout time? We can also see that there are a number of options for answering this question. If I suppose that identity is to be found in the matter of a thing, then I will claim that it is not the same ship, that it is no longer what it was. Of course, this leads to the uncomfortable situation of being forced to claim that I am not who I am, since all of my cells are replaced about every five years. I could say that what constitutes the identity of the ship is its continuity over time. In other words, while the ship comes to be made up of different elements, the elements that come to replace the other elements overlap with those elements over the course of the ships history. However, this account seems to fail in that we can imagine the ship being taken apart altogether (thus annhilating it) and then being put back together such that we would say it is the same ship. Finally, we might suggest that it is the structure that constitutes the identity of the ship. It is not what it is made of or its continuity in time, but the fact that it shares the same structure throughout time. Yet this account too seems to fail in that two ships can share identical structures and are still not the same ship (paradox of twins).

Saussure's response to this problem is that it is language that introduces these identities into the world (hence the thesis that there is no world without language. While it is certainly true that there is a Real without language, there is no Reality without language. We'll see why presently). As Saussure puts it,

The mechanism of a language turns entirely on identities and differences. The latter are merely counterparts of the former. The problem of identities crops up everywhere... We assign identity, for instance, to two trains ('the 8.45 from Geneva to Paris'), one of which leaves twenty-four hours after the other. We treat it as the 'same' train, even though probably the locomotive, the carriages, the staff etc. are not the same. Or if a street is demolished and then rebuilt, we say it is the same street, although there may be physically little or nothing left of the old one. How is it that a street can be reconstructed entirely and still be the same? Because it is not a purely material structure. It has other characteristics which are independent of its bricks and mortar; for example, its situation in relation to other streets. Similarly, the train is identified by its departure time, its route, and any othe features which distinguish it from other trains. Whenever the same conditions are fulfilled, the same entities reappear. But they are not abstractions. The street and the train are real enough. Their physical existence is essential to our understanding of what they are. (151-2)

Saussure's point is that it is the name, the position within the differential system of language, that establishes identities. Even if the trains between yesterday and today are physically different in every possible way, they are still the SAME train in that they are the 8.45 train. We might make the same point in another way: How is it possible for a book to be missing while still existing? For the book itself, of course, it is far from missing insofar as it continues to exist. Rather, if the book is to be missing then it can only be because the book has a place (as in a place in the dewey decimal system). But having a place is a symbolic function or a function that it is only made possible through a symbolic system. Therefore a book can only be missing insofar as there is a language through which the place of the book might be alloted. Here language does not simply serve a representational or referential function, but language structures reality itself. This cannot be seen unless one relinquishes the representational conception of language.

Consequently, wherever there are identities, there is language. And moreoever, these identities never simply stand alone, but always belong to heirarchical systems of differences that define places and which normatively function to sanction and forbid different forms of interaction and self-relation. In fact, we here find what Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, referred to as the narcissism of minor differences. What is the minor difference around which two small towns are organized? For instance, what is the minor difference between Shelbyville and Springfield in the Simpsons? As many episodes show, the two towns are nearly identical, so it is not really physical differences that form the ground for narcissistic rivalry and struggle. Rather, it is the names of the towns themselves which function as points of identification (what Freud referrred to as identification with the unary trait). Consequently, the analysis of ideology must be organized around the analysis of these signifying systems, these differential networks, to determine how they sort and organize persons (set theory).

In fact, the manner in which language forms and moulds reality goes far beyond the organization of differences that were already there. For as Lacan shows with his example of the two doors in "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious", the introduction of a signifier is capable of introducing a difference into two things that are in fact identical. Simply by naming one door "Gentlemen" and another "Ladies" two separate universes are brought into existence that are accompanied by an entire system of rules and prohibitions. The doors were identical, but now on the minimal difference of the signifier, they are radically different. The difference here has nothing to do with the physical objects (the doors), nor is it a matter of my mental states (the prohibitions are real and transindividual, such that I do not get to choose what makes one door Ladies and the other Gentlement), but are instead an EFFECT of signification itself. This form of differentiation is the very essence of culture. It requires an eye that can see horizontally or which can see the mist that floats on the ground in order to be discerned. It is on the basis of these effects that I wonder what is behind the door called Ladies (objet a).

Wherever there is language, there is thus a system of place and identities. Wherever there is a system of places and identities, something can be missing from its place. As Lacan remarks in Seminar IX, the subject which is organized like a torus (a tire tube) always forgets to count the inner circle of his tire (a place/space) when seeking the missing object of his desire. It is for this reason that I idiotically seek my missing object, failing to not that nothing can fill the PLACE where this object comes to be lodged. There is no object for this place, just the place itself. And it is this place that makes me a creature of desire. The signifier carves up the world, filling it with places and voids. It names the different regions of my body eroticizing them and gentrifying them. It names different groups, occupations and identities and the heirachical relations among them. It creates geographies and effects of meaning surrounding these geographies. The world is a net of signifiers forming reality, while the real is the scream that sometimes emerges through this net, showing that not everything is accounted for and something new is possible.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Beautiful post. You have convinced me that I absolutely must read Lacan.

I am not totally persuaded by this account of language. I would agree that displacement is an essential function of language, but I also believe language is primarily dialogic, so I don't know what I would make of a phenonemon like aphanisis according to Lacan.

Have you run across Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language? It was a favorite text of mine many years ago. Perhaps I will revisit it after checking out Lacan.

Again, beautiful post--and also the next one on framing desire. I'm glad you caught me being hasty. This is all very instructive.

November 12, 2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

p.s. I love the photo.

November 12, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks Fido. I would agree with your claim that language is dialogic. In many respects this is one of the central principles of transference. In the Rome Discourse ("Function and Field of Speech"), Lacan argues that all speech calls for a response. One way transference can be thought is as the manner in which the speech of the analysand seeks to position the Other to whom it addresses itself (who might very well *not* be the person to whom the analysand is speaking) in a particular position or role.

I enjoyed Kristeva's Revolution a great deal when I read it years ago.

November 13, 2006 8:57 AM  
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December 30, 2008 12:33 AM  

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