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Lacanian psychoanalysis


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Articles > Lacanian psychoanalysis

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Jaques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who reconceptualized Freud using post-structuralism.

Lacan rejected attempts to link psychoanalysis with social theory, saying 'the unconscious is the discourse of the Other' -- that human passion is structured by the desire of others and that we express deep feelings through the 'relay' of others. He thus saw desire as a social phenomenon and psychoanalysis as a theory of how the human subject is created through social interaction. Desire appears through a combination of language, culture and the spaces between people.

Lacan focused largely on Freud's work on deep structures and infant sexuality, and how the human subject becomes an 'other' through unconscious repression and stemming from the Mirror phase. The conscious ego and unconscious desire are thus radically divided. Lacan considered this perpetual and unconscious fragmentation of the self as Freud's core discovery.

Lacan thus sought to return psychoanalysis on the unconscious, using Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics, structural anthropology and post-structural theories.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is rather ruthless in its aggressive challenging that seeks to dismantle the imaginary sense of completeness (as in the Mirror phase) and to remove illusions of self-mastery through a mirror image. A strong ego is seen as defensive deceit and expressing it during analysis is seen as resistance to change. Fear of disintegration and lack drives the person to realize themselves in another imaginary individual.

Lacan would cope with transference by suddenly terminating the session.

The Oedipus crisis precipitates the child into the symbolic stage, from which they can become a speaking subject.

It is not just the father, but language that creates the division. Language is used to represent desire and is an 'intersubjective order of symbolization' and force that perpetuates the 'Law of the father'. The father prohibits the desire of the mother, subverting this desire into language.

Linguistic domination

As desire and connection is created through language, Lacan explains this through Saussure's signifier and signified, which are seen not as referring to objects but to psychic representations created by their interplay and by culture and history.

Within language, the subject vainly tries to represent itself. The subject is an effect of the signifier, put into language. Language becomes a mask to disguise the impossibility of desire. The unconscious is less something inside the person as an 'intersubjective' space between people. According to Lacan, 'the unconscious is structured like language.'

Lacan sees the child not as the agent of symbolization but as the recipient of desire from an Other (the Mother). When the child plays with things disappearing and finding them again, they are recreating the missing mother.

There are no sexual relations: there is just the individual's relation to the Law and to language, which allow for the continuance of social relationships.

Lacanian psychoanalysis thus focuses on deconstructing the narcissistic illusions of the self, allowing the childhood fragmentation and lack of unity of the self to resurface.


A major contribution that Lacan brought was in the emphasis of language in the creation of the self and psychic and sexual life.

In his Post-Freudian interpretation of Oedipal and other early infant sexuality, Lacan saw the female position as being non-essential, a view that was taken up by feminists. The premise of the father ripping the infant from the innocent mother, seducing it into the symbolic order, supported feminist indignation.

Lacan says that the unconscious is inserted into the symbolic order from the 'outside' and is 'structured like a language', operating according to differential relationships in language. It thus does not 'belong' to the individual and is an effect of signification on the subject.

He is in opposition to American psychologists who see the ego at being central. Lacan puts the subjective 'self' at the center, where it is alienated from its own history, formed in and through otherness, and is inserted into an external symbolic network. 'I' is a fiction borne of a misrecognition that masks a fractured and unconscious desire for reunification that permeates adult life.

There is thus always a gap between the 'I' of the subject position (into which people are forced by ideology and culture) and the 'me' of the subject who speaks. This leads to endless futile attempts to stitch oneself into language in an imagined position where the self can be spoken. This anti-essentialist account avoids Althusser's functionalist position.

Meaning is created as a part of the signifying chain of language in the impact of the Other on the self, rather than being signified.

Issues of core importance in Lacanian psychoanalysis thus include:

  • The de-centering of the subject

  • The loss and impossibility of unified psychic life

  • The primacy of signifier over what is signfied in the unconscious

  • The fragile and precarious relationship with the Other

Lacan's connection of psychoanalysis with linguistics has been recognized as as significant move by many.


Lacan has also been criticized,  in theorizing of sexuality and unconscious, as well as the limitations of his use of linguistics. The structuring of the unconscious and tying it to language is criticized as simplification and subversion. Many critics have pointed out that the unconscious is highly symbolic and resistant to syntax. Reformulating Freud's unconscious/conscious dualism as a linguistic relationship is a bridge too far.

Lacan's equation of language and culture does not take account of power, ideology and social institutions, each of which may also contribute towards trauma and internal divisions. There is no attention paid to the how the subject acts in individual and global social situations, nor are the forces of culture and politics considered in any detail (these also are dismissed as a sub-aspect of the signifier).

Lacan fails to recognize that people are capable of self-reflection and self-actualization and hence can escape his impossible trap. If we are trapped and all image is distortion then Lacan himself was trapped and his own views distorted. Any theory of inevitable blindness thus defeats itself. 

See also

Mirror phase, Subject

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