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La linguistique

The science of linguistics was crucial to Jacques Lacan’s rethinking of Freudian psychoanalysis, which focused on the primacy of the signifier and the role of language in the constitution of the unconscious. As such, it was a central component of the structuralist endeavour of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse as well.

Although a well-established field of inquiry in France today, linguistics owes its introduction into contemporary French thought to two thinkers, the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure and the Russian émigré Roman Jakobson, whose ideas would play a foundational role in the advent of French structuralism. The Collège de France professor Emile Benveniste (along with, in different fields, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes) helped consolidate linguistics as an essential point of reference in 1960s France.

Several distinctions were central to Saussure’s linguistics, developed in his Cours de linguistique générale (delivered between 1881 and 1891, published in Paris in 1916): the distinction between the signifier and the signified as the two components of the linguistic sign; the distinction in turn between sign and referent, that is, between the union of image (signifier) and concept (signified) comprising the sign on the one hand, and its putatively real world referent on the other; the distinction between langue and parole; and the distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic. For Saussure, the relationship between signifier and signified - e.g., the acoustic or written image ‘tree’ and the concept ‘tree’ - was arbitrary, determined by a network of differential relations in language itself rather than any originary link or bond between the signifier and signified. Thus, langue - that is, a given language as a synchronic set of rules and relations - was to be the domain of linguistic analysis over a concern with parole, the spoken utterances of language that occur in diachronic time.

The impact of Saussurean linguistics on French structuralism cannot be overestimated. Claude Lévi-Strauss developed his structural anthropology on the basis of Saussure’s differential conception of the symbolic order, the latter of which had been introduced to Lévi-Strauss by Roman Jakobson during their time together in New York during the Second World War. While phenomenology was its main philosophical condition, the early development of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction also owed much to a critique of the privilege of speech (parole) and the denigration of writing in the Saussurean framework. Roland Barthes’ semiotics has its origins in the Saussurean legacy as well; these developments were all crucial conditions for the work of Julie Kristeva and the journal Tel Quel in the 1970s.

With the possible exception of Lévi-Strauss, no one did more to develop the ramifications of Saussurean linguistics in a field different from its original domain than Jacques Lacan. In ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’ (1953), his so-called ‘Rome Discourse’, Lacan placed linguistics at the heart of his reconfiguration and development of Freudian theory and practice. Lacan departed from Saussure in various respects, chiefly in his near lack of concern for the signified and his attention to speech or parole as a crucial aspect of psychoanalytic practice. Nonetheless, many of Lacan’s main concepts - e.g. his consideration of metaphor and metonymy in terms of Freudian condensation and displacement, or his distinction between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement - have the efforts of Saussure and Jakobson as their essential precondition. Even through his turn to topology in his later work, Lacan continued to explore and exploit the insights of linguistics in his thought.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse the engagement with linguistics is part of a broader exploration of logic, mathematics, and formalisation. This science of language would also provide the chief terrain for Jean-Claude Milner’s work ulterior to his contribution to the Cahiers.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1), which opens Volume 3, Lacan explicitly remarks that his project is to read Freud in light of a science of linguistics that he himself lacked as he established psychoanalysis. Lacan writes:

[W]ithout structure, it is impossible to grasp anything of the real of the economy: of the cathexis or investment, as one says, even without knowing what one is saying.

It is for having lacked the elaboration prepared at this juncture by linguistics that Freud hesitated to decide as to the origin of the charge, which he distinguished in consciousness, quite perspicacious in recognizing it to be excessive in relation to the epiphenomenal slimness to which a certain physiology was intent on reducing it, and freeing himself therefrom, indicating to his followers the phenomenon of attention in order to cross swords (CpA 3.1:7, trans. 108).

In other words, Lacan views linguistics as necessary to a development of the Freudian project that decouples it from Freud’s own indulgence toward a physiological or vitalist conception of drive. Lacan breaks with Freud’s vacillation to affirm the dominance of the symbolic order in the constitution of the unconscious and the meaning of its symptoms. Others, such André Green (CpA 3.2), will attempt to return something of the sense of affect in the Freudian enterprise, aiming to reconcile it with the overwhelming focus on language and signification in Lacan’s work.

The fullest explication of the properly linguistic elements in Lacan’s rethinking of the Oedipus complex and castration occurs in Luce Irigaray’s ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire (modèles génétiques et modèles pathologiques)’ (CpA 3.3), also in Volume 3. In the opening sections of this article (CpA 3.3:40-47), Irigaray focuses on the relation of pronouns - e.g., the French impersonal ‘on’ versus ‘je’ or ‘il’ (‘I’ or ‘he’) - reading the former as a placeholder for a lack ultimately filled by the terms of the latter. In this article, one of the most ambitious and dense of the Cahiers, Irigaray melds several key Lacanian thematics, such as language and specularity, with the formal analyses of Jacques-Alain Miller and Jean-Claude Milner developed elsewhere in the journal (CpA 1.3; CpA 3.5).

An article titled ‘La formalisation en linguistique’ (CpA 9.7) by Antoine Culioli appears in Volume 9, devoted to the ‘genealogy of the sciences’. A figure apart from the Lacanian universe, Culioli would have a distinguished academic career in France, leading a key workshop at the ENS and serving as a professor for many years at Paris-VII Jussieu (now Diderot). He advised many doctoral theses in the subject, including Milner’s. Culioli’s central concern in this article is the limits of formalisation in linguistics, and the errors that result when one tries to import mathematical models that fail to account for the equally poetic as well as syntactical elements of language. In Culioli’s view, formal linguistics should not superficially ‘survey [survoler] languages in their generality’ (CpA 9.7:109), but must consider the full range of what it finds, without exception. It should thus recognize and draw from the fact that no model can be exhaustive. Culioli’s aim, in this article and his later work, is to construct models that refuse ‘to reduce language [langage] and to refuse the status of linguistics as nothing but a collection of individual phenomena’. His goal ‘is to permit the posing of theoretical problems, to be constrained to a common metalanguage and to rigorous modes of reasoning’ (CpA 9.7:117).

Select bibliography

  • Jakobson, Roman. ‘Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances’ (1956). In Selected Writings, vol. II, Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Seminar IX: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. L’Amour de la langue. Paris: Seuil, 1978.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (1916), eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1983.