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Le discours

The editorial statement of the inaugural volume of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse describes the aim of the journal as ‘the constitution of a theory of discourse’, with discourse defined as ‘a process of language constrained by truth’. Debates about the relation between scientific and ideological discourse, the subject’s place within discourse, and the nature of discourse itself will be paramount throughout the journal’s ten issues.

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The term ‘discourse’ is frequently used in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, in several different contexts. By and large, two operative senses of the term seem dominant within the journal, one inspired above all by Jacques Lacan and another ultimately exemplified by Michel Foucault (with Louis Althusser’s views occupying something like a mediate position between the two).1 Though similar in many respects, especially as concerns the role of discourse in the constitution of subjects, the difference between a ‘Lacanian’ and a ‘Foucauldian’ conception of discourse turns primarily on its location and whether or not the concept is an equivocal or univocal one. For Lacan, the central question concerns the subject’s place in, or relation to, his own discourse, constituted through his unique speech. What is crucial, however, is that this discourse is itself split into two different domains or chains of signification, a conscious discourse and an unconscious one. With its focus on this split in the case of unique subjects, the Lacanian perspective is rigorously singular and particular.

By contrast, Foucault’s vision - which received one of its most extensive explications in the Cahiers (CpA 9.2) - concerns a much broader historical and disciplinary field. Foucault’s thinking about discourse grew out of his historical studies into the various disciplines that comprise bodies of ‘knowledge’ as such, e.g., medicine (The Birth of the Clinic), or the ‘human sciences’ (The Order of Things, 1966). In these cases, the discourse in question is coextensive to the discipline under historical examination. But for Foucault, discourse is a concept ‘that will come to have a much wider berth. Discourse is a field that is irreducible to the statements that comprise it; it is in each instance the historical condition of possibility for the claims made within it (e.g., the discourse of medicine makes medical claims about the body possible)’. More important, and this is a theme that would especially exercise Foucault after his major studies of the 1960s, it is discourse that makes possible ‘subject positions’ and hence the possibility of the subject as such. In The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), a book which grew out of Foucault’s response to the Cercle d’Épistémologie and which functions as something like a hinge between the earlier Foucault of structure and the later Foucault of the subject or ‘self’, the subject in discourse is described as follows:

It is a determined and empty place that can in fact be filled by different individuals; but instead of being defined once and for all, […] it is variable enough to either be able to persevere, unchanging, through several sentences, or to alter with each one. It is a dimension that characterizes a whole formulation qua statement [énoncé]. […] To describe a formulation qua statement does not consist in analysing the relation between the author and what he says (or wanted to say, or said without wanting to); but in determining what can and must be occupied by any individual if he is to be the subject of it.2

This passage comes from a chapter titled ‘The Enunciative Function’, a heading which, along with the claims contained therein, suggests that Foucault considers his conception of discourse and the subject’s place within it in a way to be contrasted with Lacan’s.

In his work immediately following the events of May 1968 (and the terminus of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse) Lacan developed his own theory of the ‘four discourses’ as a way to account for various subject and authority positions. In his earlier work, however, discourse is often used in a much more general sense. In some instances, Lacan invokes the term to refer to the most general field of languages and signs to which one is exposed; more often, he speaks of the ‘subject’s discourse’ in a way that suggests its equivalence to the analysand’s speech as such.

Nevertheless, there is a very specific thesis about discourse that comes from Lacan’s work in the 1950s and 1960s. This is the claim that ‘the unconscious is the discourse of the other’. As noted, a crucial feature of the Lacanian framework is the notion that the subject is split between a conscious level and an unconscious one. [N.B. This is what distinguishes Lacan from post-Freudian ego psychology; it is not that the ‘subject’ is at the level of the ego, and the ‘unconscious’ refers to a separate complex domain of super-ego injunctions and id-based desires; rather the subject is constitutively split between the two domains, the conscious and the unconscious].3 In Seminar XI, this is codified as a split between the ‘subject of the enunciation’ and the ‘subject of the statement’ [énoncé], wherein the ‘I’ of the statement is the ‘I’ in discourse that refers back to the unconscious ‘I’ of the enunciation. Lacan’s aim is to treat this ‘unconscious’ field, the one prior to all grammatical instantiation (e.g., the ‘I’ of the sentence ‘I am lying’), as a discourse that is distinct from the discourse of mere statements. But what does it mean to describe it as the discourse of the Other? Again, the answer lies in the subject’s fundamentally split nature, as Lacan describes in ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud’ (1957):

The radical heteronomy that Freud’s discovery shows gaping within man can no longer be covered over without whatever tries to hide it being fundamentally dishonest.

Which other is this, then, to whom I am more attached than to myself [moi], since, at the most assented to heart of my identity to myself, he pulls the strings?

His presence can only be understood in an alterity raised to the second power, which already situates him in a mediating position in relation to my own splitting from myself, as if from a semblable.

If I have said that the unconscious is the Other’s discourse (with a capital O), it is in order to indicate the beyond in which the recognition of desire is tied to the desire for recognition.

In other words, this other is the Other that even my lie invokes as a guarantor of the truth in which my lie subsists.

Here we see that the dimension of truth emerges with the appearance of language (E, 436).

If the discourse that takes place at the level of unconscious is the discourse of the Other, we see then how Lacan’s formulation would prove attractive to Althusser and the editors of the Cahiers interested in developing a theory of ideology. For Lacan’s formulation suggests a simultaneous lack of control over, and essential foreignness to, the ‘Other’ that constitutes unconscious discourse. Making the strangeness of this discourse come into being, that is, breaking with the ‘empty speech’ that occurs at the level of the statement, is the task of analysis for Lacan.

But with this framework in mind, we can understand something more about Foucault’s remarks cited above. For Foucault, there are not two separate levels of discourse, a conscious and an unconscious. And what is more, discourse is not something that needs to be made manifest. As Foucault noted, the concern is not what the ‘author’ wanted or didn’t want to say. Discourse is fully out in the open, the surface matter itself of all enunciations. Discourse is what makes ‘subject positions’ possible.

The univocality of discourse in Foucault’s rubric is what accounts for his hostility to the distinction between scientific and ideological discourse found in the Althusserian enterprise. And yet, we can read Althusser as in a way between the Lacanian and Foucauldian positions on this subject. For Althusser, ideological discourse is ubiquitous, and inescapable for the ‘subjects’ interpellated within it qua subjects. To be a subject, for Althusser, means to exist in ideological discourse. Similarly, however, science too is a ubiquitous discourse in its own proper domain. This is a position that will be developed by Alain Badiou in the Cahiers (cf. CpA 10.8), namely, that science is predicated upon the exclusion of ideology, a move accomplished through the foreclosure of any subject of science.

Althusser was indebted to Lacan for his own theory of ideology. In addition to thinking of the category as essentially coextensive with the category of the imaginary in Lacan’s vernacular, Althusser also found resources for thinking the distinction between science and ideology in Lacan’s theory of split subjects. In Althusser’s reading, the fact that the two ‘discourses’ in Lacan - the conscious and the unconscious - are ultimately referred back to a single signifying chain is of the utmost importance.4 Indeed, recognition of the singularity of this discourse is the essential precondition for science. This is the case since science, for Althusser, breaks with all notion of essence, i.e., the idea that there is an anterior essence that science makes manifest. Hence, there cannot be two discourses, a surface discourse that masks a latent one. Nonetheless, Althusser wants to maintain the science/ideology distinction. Ultimately, what we find in Althusser is a paradoxical position in which science (and by extension a ‘scientific discourse’) is only possible on condition that all discourse be recognized as ideological. In this regard, we can see Althusser as somehow between Lacan and Foucault, affirming with one hand the ubiquity and inescapability of ‘ideological’ discourse (Lacan), while maintaining on the other its singularity and holding out the possibility for something like a scientific analysis of it (Foucault). This fundamental tension in Althusser’s effort is manifest in his ‘Three Notes on the theory of Discourses’, a working paper Althusser circulated to some of the editors of the Cahiers in 1966. It is here that Althusser affirms most emphatically that the ‘the notion of subject seems […] to pertain to ideological discourse alone, of which it is constitutive’.5

Foucault’s account of discourse, as it was first sketched in the Cahiers, might be read as partially conditioned by the impasse of the Althusserian distinction between two kinds of discourse, a scientific and an ideological one. It is worth observing, however, that one of the major afterlives of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is to be found in the model of ‘discourse analysis’ developed by Michel Pêcheux (the real name of the pseudonymous contributor to the Cahiers, Thomas Herbert) in the 1970s and early 1980s. In a way very similar to Foucault’s approach, Pêcheux nonetheless refused to abandon the Marxist foundation subtending Althusserianism. For Pêcheux, ‘discourse analysis’ was a matter of investigating the tension between structure and event, between description and interpretation.6

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

As noted, some mention of ‘discourse’ occurs in nearly every contribution to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Nevertheless, there are key moments where the nature of discourse itself is in question, especially the question of the relation of the subject to his discourse, and that of the possibility of distinct discourses: ideological discourse, a scientific discourse, and even a third ‘discourse’ that would be epistemology, or the discourse of science.

Volume 1 contains Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture: Éléments d’une logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3). The primary concern of this text, which undertakes a reading of Gottlob Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic, is how the subject figures in his discourse as a kind of errant lack, an inaugural lack that is ‘sutured’ or covered over thus making discourse itself possible. The scandal, as it were, of Miller’s analysis is that he claims the ‘suture’ to be operative in the most formalised discourse imaginable, the constitution of the whole number line via the successor function. Miller’s point is to show that ‘suture’ is an unavoidable element not only of any phenomenon of subjectivity in speech but of any chain of signification, including a scientific one. He writes:

Suture names the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse; we shall see that it figures there as the element which is lacking, in the form of a stand-in. For, while there lacking, it is not purely and simply absent. Suture, by extension – the general relation of lack to the structure – of which it is an element, inasmuch as it implies the position of a taking-the-place-of (CpA 1.3:39/trans. 26).

Though Miller’s argument will be subjected to an extensive critique from Alain Badiou later on (CpA 10.8), it finds an immediate critic in the psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire. In his ‘L’Analyste à sa place?’ (CpA 1.4), Leclaire is concerned to show that the analyst is the one that does not suture (this against Miller’s claim that anyone who says ‘I’ sutures). The point for Leclaire is not simply that there is suturing everywhere, but that the suture occurs at precise points in discourse, even a logical discourse. Leclaire writes: ‘[T]o arrive at such a discourse, it is necessary, if I may say, to have a secure grasp of the point that makes the articulation of a logical discourse possible, that is, the point that Miller presents to us as the weak point [le point faible], and simultaneously the crucial point of every discourse, namely the suturing point [le point de suture]’ (CpA 1.4/50).

Volume 2 contains the first of Thomas Herbert’s (Michel Pêcheux’s) contributions to the Cahiers. One can see the lineaments of his later ‘discourse analysis’ adumbrated therein when he writes:

If we add, moreover, that the instrument for the transformation of political practice is discourse, as an articulated system referring back to complex social practice - be it under the form of Myth or that of the system - it will be understood that ultimately political practice has as its function the transformation of social relations by reformulating the social demand (demand and also command, in the double sense that we now understand the term), through the use of a discourse. In saying this, we are not claiming that politics is reducible to discourse; but that any decision, any ‘measure’ in the political sense, takes its place in political practice like a sentence in a discourse (CpA 2.6:150).

The next major discussion of discourse per se in the Cahiers occurs in the exchange with Michel Foucault that opens Volume 9, ‘Généalogie des sciences’. It is here that Foucault is explicit in his abandonment of a problematic which distinguishes between manifest and latent discourse:

All these themes, which function to guarantee the infinite continuity of discourse and its secret presence to itself in the action of an absence that is always one stage farther back, must be renounced. Each moment of discourse must be welcomed in its irruption as an event; in the punctuation where it appears; and in the temporal dispersion that allows it to be repeated, known, forgotten, transformed, wiped out down to its slightest traces […]. There is no need to retrace the discourse to the remote presence of its origin; it must be treated in the play of its immediacy [dans le jeu de son instance] (CpA 9.2:16/305, trans.).

Later in the same issue, François Regnault considers the relation between science and the discourse of the science, i.e., epistemology, in terms of the hypotheses of the One’s relation to its others, and the relation of the absolute to the relative, in Plato’s Parmenides (CpA 9.4). Herbert takes his analysis of discourse a step further in ‘Pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ (CpA 9.6). The lineaments of the tension between ‘structure’ and ‘event’ in discourse analysis can be seen in Herbert’s concern to locate the sites of displacement between one level of discourse (e.g., the economic) and another (e.g., the political or the juridical) as sites of possible ‘mutation’ that make change possible.

The problem of ‘scientific discourse’ as such is explicitly identified in the preamble which opens this volume’s ‘Chemistry dossier’, containing texts by Lavoisier (CpA 9.12) and Mendeleev (CpA 9.14), along with commentaries by Francois Dagognet (CpA 9.13) and Gaston Bachelard (CpA 9.15). Supplementary texts from d’Alembert (CpA 9.16) and Cuvier (CpA 9.17) are included as well. The concern here (CpA 9.11) is how particular scientific discourses can become extended, providing a more ‘general form’ for representing the objects that fall within its concern. This framing of the problem resonates greatly with Althusser’s concern in his ‘Three Notes of the Theory of Discourses’, circulating around this time, to think the relation between ‘regional theories’ and ‘general theories’, in particular to think how something born in the conditions of a ‘regional theory’ (e.g., historical materialism) could become a general theory in turn.

Although discourse as such is not its primary concern, Alain Badiou’s ‘Marque et manque: À propos du zero’ (CpA 10.8) returns to the problem introduced in Miller’s ‘Suture’. If Leclaire is insistent that the analyst does not suture in his discourse, Badiou’s point is that the discourse constitutive of science, that is to say logical discourse, does not suture either. Accordingly ‘there is no subject of science’ for Badiou in this, his most Althusserian text. If Miller and Badiou’s positions meet in an impasse on this particular subject in the Cahiers, Foucault’s work finds fecund ways out of it. Likewise, Badiou’s later work, in his Theory of the Subject, and Being and Event, will return to the ‘impasse’ as such, finding in it a site for political innovation and genuine novelty that resonates with Pêcheux’s own conception of ‘discourse analysis’.


  • Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books, 1971.
  • Althusser, Louis. The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Barthes, Roland. ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’. In Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1972.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • Pêcheux, Michel. ‘Discourse: Structure or Event?’ trans. Warren Montag, with Marie-Germane Pêcheux and Denise Guback. In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 633-650.
  • Pêcheux, Michel. Automatic Discourse Analysis (1969), eds. Tony Hak and Niels Helsloot, trans. David Macey. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
  • Pêcheux, Michel. Language, Semantics, and Ideology (1982). trans. H.C. Nagpal, trans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.


1. To a lesser extent than Althusser, Lacan, or Foucault, Roland Barthes also had an impact on the Cercle d’Épistémologie. In his paper ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ (1968) (cited by Miller and Regnault in CpA 7.Introduction:4), Barthes noted that while ‘linguistics stops at the sentence, the last unit which it considers to fall within its scope’, it is nevertheless evident ‘that discourse itself, as set of sentences, is organized and that, through this organization, it can be seen as the message of another language, one operating at a higher level than the language of the linguists’. ‘Discourse’, Barthes argues, ‘has its units, its rules, its “grammar”’, and semiology provides the means for the construction of a higher level structural analysis of discourse. (Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, 83).

2. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 95.

3. In his Rome Discourse of 1953, ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, Lacan says, ‘the subject’s unconscious is the other’s discourse’ (E, 219). Over the 1950s, Lacan’s position will evolve to recognizing the subject itself as fundamentally split between two discourses.

4. Louis Althusser, ‘Freud and Lacan’, Lenin and Philosophy, 207-8.

5. Louis Althusser, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, The Humanist Controversy, 77.

6. In a piece written in 1983 shortly before his death, Pêcheux wrote: ‘[A]ny utterance is intrinsically able to become other than itself, to split discursively from its meaning, to be diverted toward another. […] Any utterance or sequence of utterances is thus linguistically describable as a series (lexico-syntactically determined) of possible points of diversion, leaving room for interpretation. It is in this space that discourse analysis claims to work. […] [T]he main point is to determine in the practice of discourse analysis the place and time of interpretation in relation to description’ (Pêcheux, ‘Discourse: Structure or Event?’, 647).