Topics in Cultural Studies: Freud and Lacan



Freud and Psychoanalysis

The Interpretation of Dreams

      The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

      The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious

Sexuality and Sexual Difference (Psycho-Sexual Development)

Freud: Art and Literature (Leonardo da Vinci, The Uncanny, Goethe)

      Psychoanalysis and Culture

Religion and Society

The growth of an Institution

Jacques Lacan

   Metonymy (Imaginary) and Displacement

   Metaphor (Symbolic) and Condensation





In psychoanalytic theory the distinction between the subject of the statement (parole, speech, the utterance) and the subject of enunciation (langue, the language system) corresponds to Sigmund Freud’s distinction between consciousness and the unconscious.  Jacques Lacan argues that since the subject comes into being through language, he does so through the exercise of signifying articulation. As soon as he comes into being he finds himself not as he is (what Lacan would call the truth of his being) but as he imagines himself to be – that is, as a representation (at the level of the statement). In order to discover the subject of the unconscious the analyst must focus on the level of enunciation (performance, expression) in order to recognize the truth of the subject in the articulation of language, its enunciation. So the relation between statement and enunciation (the said and the saying) actualizes the divided structure of the psychoanalytic subject and helps to clarify the difference between the imaginary (fixed and complete image of person) and the symbolic (the constitutive function of language). The distinction between the symbolic and the imaginary thus maps onto that between langue and parole. Lacan also argues that metaphor and metonymy, located by Jacobson on the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes respectively, correspond to Freud’s accounts of the displacements and condensations of dreams, thus providing the analyst a further resource in a kind of literary and cultural criticism. A displacement censors a dream by substituting relatively harmless images or objects for those more likely to cause anxiety. Condensation merges images, places them together, confusing them.




Jacque Lacan and the Freudian School of Analysis

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan insisted throughout his career that his own theory and practice maintain strict fidelity to Freud’s insights and the psychoanalytic apparatus that he established.  Lacan was from the 1950s opposed to the dominant strain in psychoanalysis at the time—the practice still referred to as ego-psychology.  Lacan’s antidote to this was what he called the return to Freud and, accordingly, his seminars through the 50s, 60s and 70s comprise lengthy and patient close readings of the texts of Freud. 


The Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic

The three terms real, imaginary and symbolic provide a useful framework for understanding his account of human psycho-sexual development.  The real which is always necessarily outside experience (because experience is only possible in the symbolic) denotes what we might imagine as the blissful state of pure being.  We start off as no more than mindless animalistic subjects awaiting access to the world of meaning.  But this “awaiting” can have no meaning itself except retrospectively as something imagined by someone who already occupies the world of meaning.  So the human subject passes from a world of being (impossible for us to think in fact) to a world of meaning.  Such a world is dominated by what he calls after Ferdinand de Saussure, the signifier.  This should not be too difficult to understand.  A signifier stands for something which it is not.  Now in the world of meaning everything is a signifier for something it is not.  There is just one signifier, Lacan says, for which this is not the case, that is, the signifier whose function is to signify (i.e., stand in for) the signifier.  This signifier (and what is it? where is it?) signifies nothing for, as we have learned, before a signifier signifies anything at all it is first of all just an empty meaningless mark, signifying nothing.  When signifiers mean something then they do so in relation to each other.  If the signifier dominates the world of meaning, then this nothing or this lack, inserts itself at the very grounds of our experience as the trace of Being now lost (but always retrospectively).  The sexual object—on the model of Freud’s Oedipus complex—is always an object that stands in for an object that was lost from the beginning.  It stands in for an absence that inserts itself as an essential component of the structure of a meaningful world.  To “find” someone (as people say) is to re-find an object that one did not even know was lost until one finds it “again.”

Freud had made a distinction between image building—making identifications, equations between images (parents and others, brothers, sisters, friends, enemies, toys and other objects)—and analytic activities, embodied par excellence by the activity of the analyst as s/he provides interpretations that lead to successful psychoanalysis.  Only on the analytic level would a patient achieve the freedom to become active in realizing her own destiny in life.

Lacan begins with this distinction but develops some more involved implications.  The symbolic function operates like an a priori structure (the notion of the Symbolic is derived from structuralism) made up of rules of behavior—language, kinship relations, relations of power, socially structured communities and groups that individuals are constrained by in their negotiations, agreements and disagreements.  This a priori structure constitutes the levels of possibility and constraint that order and organize the frameworks by which we all access our world.     

The human imaginary begins with the mirror stage.  What this means is that a child identifies with another (an image of itself in the mirror or some other similar figure like a child of the same age).  The ego is made up of successive layers of such identifications but is fundamentally nothing in itself.  It is not a centered structure but a series of identifications, equivalencies, oppositions.  As such the imaginary has the function of conservation and operates in favor of “making the same” (inducing jealousy, rivalry, competition, aggression and, ultimately, of course, war).  We learn from Lacan’s account of the mirror stage that the infant’s ego is developed when the infant finds itself at one remove from the imaginary object of the mother’s (the other’s) desire.  That is, the originating experience for human individuals is at once joyful and depressing: I am who I am (I am somebody); but I am not in the place that I want to be—the place of the desire of the mother.  This “place” is signaled by what Lacan, after Freud, calls the “function of the father.”  In other words, the castration complex as Freud describes it can be read as a pattern of desire instituted by an imaginary place that is destined forever to be beyond the reach of the human subject because there is no such place: it is nothing but a structural a priori condition.

The Name of the Father (Nom-du-Père in French sounds like Non-du-Père, the Father’s “No”) replaces—substitutes itself for—the Desire of the Mother in the same way that the paradigmatic axis (the system, the symbolic, the signifier substituting for another signifier) indicates the locus of substitution for the syntagmatic axis, which is the axis, if you remember, of combination, where we follow signifier after signifier apparently experiencing meaning as it spontaneously emerges from the “reading” process.  The object a is my private object of desire, for which a series of stand ins “stand in” but which is nothing other than the cause of desire itself as the insertion a priori of lack at the centre of experience.  The relation between the Symbolic (Name of the Father) and the Imaginary (Desire of the Mother) constitutes my oscillation between personal desires (very idiosyncratic) and the impersonal and shared universe of discourse, which I can never get outside.    

You cannot have imaginary relations without symbolic relations, and vice versa.  To achieve a balance between the demands of the imaginary (selfish) and those of the symbolic (social), the analyst must temper the image-building identifications with the analytic realization of difference (social, cultural etc.).  There are no cozy answers for the human subject because an individual is never an integral and self-sufficient whole.  Stronger ego identifications lead to problems with envy and aggression while stronger analytic awareness leads to increased sense of emptiness and lack.  Mental and emotional health can therefore be measured according to the greater or lesser capacity an individual has for tolerating knowledge of the emptiness on which human experience is grounded.





Freud was struck by the similarity between the myth of Oedipus and his own discoveries of unconscious processes.  The myth is most clearly dramatized in the plays of Sophocles (who was a contemporary of Socrates).  In Sophocles’ drama the unfolding of the tragedy involves Oedipus’ gradual discovery of his own guilt.  He discovers that he has in ignorance killed his father and that the woman he loves and has married is none other than his mother.  As a consequence of his discovery he blinds himself and exiles himself from his home.   In fulfilling the oracle that begins the story he fails to escape his predestined fate.  This is Freud’s explanation: “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Interpretation of Dreams 364).  Freud argues that the power of this artwork lies in the ability of the poet to force us into a transferred recognition of what he calls “our own inner minds.”  Those same impulses (to patricide and incest with the mother) are still lurking yet “suppressed” within all of us.  Oedipus’ unconscious guilt (which is literal—he is not at first conscious of his guilt) stands figuratively for our own unconscious guilt.  “Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature, and after their revelation we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scene of our childhood” (365).  This last sentence has many resonances.  Freud points out in a footnote to a later edition that it is this part of his theory that has provoked the most embittered denials, fiercest opposition and the most amusing distortions (100 year later we are often led to suspect that this is still the case).  Thus the blinding scene is a metaphorical indication of the vicious resistance to the insights that psychoanalysis offers.  Freud also, significantly, likens not the myth itself but the action of the play to the processes of psychoanalysis.  He says that it “consists in nothing other than the processes of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement—a process that can be likened to the work of a psycho-analysis” (363).  It places Freud firmly within the canon of arguments about false-consciousness (along with Plato, Descartes, Marx and Wittgenstein).  But we need to ask, what is the so-called “Nature” that the Oedipus myth actually represents (the truth behind the false and blinded consciousness).  Freud’s use of he word Nature in fact already illustrates how he is replacing the traditional biological ground of sexuality (the cultivation/husbandry ground) with an alternative in the Oedipus complex. 




Recommended Reading

Dor, Joël. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan. New York: The Other Press, 1998.

Easthope, Anthony. The Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1999.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. London: Norton, 2006.

Mitchell, Juliet and Jacqueline Rose, eds. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1982.

Nobus, Dany. Jacques Lacan and the Freudian Practice of Psychoanalysis (written from a psychoanalytic perspective and in its way less vulnerable to various potentially misleading kinds of appropriation that plague literary and cultural criticism).

Sarup, Madan. Jacques Lacan. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992 (The first chapter on Freud is heavily indebted to Elizabeth Wright but the rest is a valuable introduction to Lacan).

Vice, Sue, ed. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reader. Cambridge: Polity, 1996.     





These are my introductory commentaries:

Freud and Psychoanalysis

The Rhetoric of the Dreamwork

Jacques Lacan, Language and Sexuality

The Return to Melanie Klein

Bibliography for Psychoanalysis