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La parole

One of the distinctive features of the Lacanian contribution to the general field of structuralism was the primacy accorded to speech, which had long been central to psychoanalytic practice. The relation between speech and writing would be subjected to varied interrogations within the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

Though the ‘talking cure’ had long been a central element of psychoanalysis, Lacan’s structural reinterpretation of the Freudian framework brokered a new emphasis on speech as the primary medium for conflict between the imaginary ego and the subject of the unconscious. Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between diachronic parole and synchronic langue, i.e. the distinction between a speech that occurs in time and the fixed synchrony of linguistic relations in a given language, was a primary source of inspiration for Lacan’s project. That said, while he maintained the distinction, Lacan departed from the general denigration of speech in Saussure’s approach, reaffirming its centrality to any structural theory of subjectivity. Central to Lacan’s thought was the distinction between ‘full speech’ and ‘empty speech’, a distinction partially inspired by Heidegger’s insistence on the difference between Rede and Gerede, discourse and ‘idle chatter’. (Lacan translated Heidegger’s article ‘Logos’ in the 1950s).

For Lacan, ‘full speech’ took place on the level of the Symbolic; here was where meaning was produced and expressed. By contrast, ‘empty speech’ occurred at the level of the Imaginary, a pure signification devoid of true meaning. In Seminar I, Lacan said: ‘Full speech is speech which aims at, which forms, the truth such as it becomes established in the recognition of one person by another. Full speech is speech which performs [qui fait acte]’ [S1, 107]. As the locus of truth, later to be identified with constitutive lack, speech was the site wherein the truth of a subject’s existence might be alternately accessed, discerned, or indeed repressed.

The primacy of lack within speech was a consequence of speech’s intrinsic diachronicity, that is to say, the fact that it occurs in time and is as such integrally incomplete due to the possibility of always saying more through the addition of another signifier. Nevertheless, Lacan’s emphasis on speech would come under the ambit of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a critique that aimed to compromise any effort to locate truth in speech to the detriment of a more primordial ‘arche-writing’ that at once makes speech possible in the first place and disrupts its self-presence. Derrida developed this critique in a series of works in the 1960s and early 1970s, one of which occupies a crucial place in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the first segment of his seminar reproduced in the Cahiers, ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Serge Leclaire observes that the analyst must ‘sidestep’ [ésquiver] the initial appearances of meaning or sense presented by the analysand’s speech (CpA 1.5:56). This move is fully indebted to Lacan’s distinction between full speech and empty speech; the task is to listen to the full speech of the analysand’s discourse, subtending the empty speech of his apparent chatter.

Volume 4 of the Cahiers contains one of the key documents of 1960s French thought: Jacques Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss in ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture: La violence de la lettre de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau’ (CpA 4.1). For Derrida, the metaphysical tradition and classical linguistics have always presented writing as secondary to and dependent upon speech, which they understood as the absolute immediacy of meaning, of the signified to the signifier. Nevertheless, the rigorous development of linguistics by Saussure and his followers demonstrated that spoken language was structured not by a referential relationship to a signified but rather by the homology of the differences between signifiers and the differences between signifieds. In this situation, despite Saussure’s continued and classical disdain for writing, the traditional understanding of writing provided a better model for structural linguistics, because it also forewent the immediate presence of a signified to its signifier. The general structure of language then could be named ‘arche-writing’. From this perspective, ‘the passage from arche-writing to writing as it is commonly understood […] is not a passage from speech to writing, it operates within writing in general’ (CpA 4.1:34).

In addition to problematizing Lévi-Strauss’s project, Derrida’s claims in this essay developed an oblique criticism of the primacy accorded to speech, and what in Derrida’s view would be the chimera of ‘full speech’, in the Lacanian framework. By emphasising the primacy of writing or the mark Derrida provided resources that Alain Badiou would develop in different ways in his critique of Jacques-Alain Miller’s account of suture later on (cf. CpA 10.8). However, Badiou himself would take leave of the concept of ‘arche-writing’ as that which disrupts the self-identity of written scientific marks from within.

The emergence of speech and reason in the human animal, i.e., the advent of ‘culture’ within ‘nature’, is the concern of Jean Mosconi’s article in this same volume (CpA 4.2), a piece which takes the form of an extensive comparison of the genetic mechanisms in Condillac’s and Rousseau’s respective philosophies. According to Condillac, and evident in his heuristic of the statue progressively accorded senses, the human capacity to reason is not given in advance, as it is with the theorists of natural law, but rather ‘develops out of itself, in keeping with an internal necessity’ (CpA 4.2:60). The operations of the mind, and the procedures of speech, follow on smoothly from their basis in sensory experience, as so many ‘successive translations of sensation’ (CpA 4.2:63), leading to ever more adequate and precise forms of expression and representation. The process of such ‘systematic’ development, at both the individual and the social level, is essentially harmonious and consistent, everywhere identical in its essential configuration and effects. There can be no place here for a ‘radical novelty’ or abrupt historical break (CpA 4.2:66).

Rousseau’s approach is very different. For Rousseau, the transition from natural animal to speech and reason proceeds through a contingent, problematic ‘denaturation’ of the animal (CpA 4.2:66). Mosconi follows Althusser here in acknowledging Rousseau’s inclusion of ‘fortuitous causes’, in his account of the development of reason, as a virtue rather than a weakness of his theory (CpA 4.2:60). For Rousseau, unlike Condillac, there is no original or ‘primitive’ condition of human sociability, no originary form of primitive society or ‘transcendental benevolence’ (CpA 4.2:73). Instead, sociability, like language, emerges as a more or less traumatic form of dislocation (one that may invite, implicitly, comparison with a Lacanian account of language acquisition as castration).

In one of the Cahiers’ key programmatic articles, ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), Jacques-Alain Miller lauds Lacanian psychoanalysis precisely for restoring the central function of speech in the subject’s discourse, a function occluded in other modes of structural analysis (CpA 9.6:95). One of Miller’s chief concerns in this essay is to develop a more general theory of scientific discourse that would complement and ground logic and psychoanalysis, a central concern of Althusser’s at this same time. If logic governs the field of the statement [énoncé], while psychoanalysis articulates the field of speech [parole], there must be a third position for a theory of discourse. The difference between logical formalisation and statements in the linguistic field is that the latter refer back to a code whose virtuality is essential for messages to be possible (CpA 9.6:100); the subject’s speech is inverted as soon as it is uttered in the field of the Other (since, amongst other reasons, it is liable to interpretation in ways other than directly intended). The lack of the code at the level of speech, and the lack of the subject-agent in the place of the code, however, combine in such a way as to generate the possibility of an unconscious (CpA 9.6:101). While the subject is correctly conceived as always ‘repeating’ a ‘primordial and generative’ relation to the Other, a full theory of discourse would also reveal more specific circuits of repetition emerging from the primary split between subject and Other.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’ [1966]. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Derrida, Jacques. L’Écriture et la différence, Paris: Seuil, 1967. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
  • Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
  • Derrida, Jacques. La Dissemination. Paris: Seuil, 1972. Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • 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 I. Les Écrits techniques de Freud, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. The Seminar. Book I. Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-54, trans. John Forrester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essai sur l’origine des langues [written 1754], trans. Victor Gourevitch as ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages’, in Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.