To comprehend Lacan’s use of the term “signifier,” it is essential to first grasp his conceptualisation of the unconscious. Unlike Freud, who believed that the unconscious was driven by primal desires, Lacan understood it as a language-like structure composed of signifiers. He argues that the foundation of human subjectivity lies in the relationship between signifiers in our unconscious and consciousness. Signifiers, in Lacanian terms, are essentially the linguistic representations that give meaning to objects, thoughts, and emotions in our minds. (For more in depth information about signifiers, read the blog post ‘Signifiers & Signification in Psychoanalysis‘).
The symbolic order, as Lacan terms it, is the social and cultural structure that gives meaning to these signifiers. It is the system of language and social norms that shapes our existence and the way we perceive reality. Within this symbolic order, signifiers connect with other signifiers, forming chains of meaning that structure the unconscious. (If you would like to learn more about the symbolic order, read the blog post ‘The Real, the Imaginary & the Symbolic‘).
Lacan’s notion of the symbolic order and its signifiers has major implications for understanding human communication and identity. Language is not just a tool for conveying information, but rather a complex web of signifiers that create meaning and subjectivity. Our thoughts, desires, and dreams are all encoded in these signifiers, woven together in the unconscious framework.
For example, let’s consider the signifier “mother.” In the symbolic order, the signifier “mother” represents not just an individual woman, but also an entire network of cultural and social meanings. Our understanding of “mother” is shaped by the language we use, the societal expectations, and the personal history we associate with it. The signifier “mother” may evoke feelings of love, dependence, or even frustration, depending on an individual’s experiences and cultural context.
Moreover, Lacan argues that signifiers are not fixed in their meanings but are subject to a process of displacement and condensation in the unconscious. This concept draws parallels to Freud’s ideas of condensation and displacement in dream analysis. Lacan suggests that signifiers in the unconscious can manifest as symbols or dreams that represent deeper, unconscious desires and conflicts. By interpreting these symbols, we can gain insight into the hidden layers of the human psyche.
So, what does all this mean for our understanding of ourselves and others? Lacan’s theories suggest that language is not just a medium for communication but a fundamental part of our existence. The signifiers that structure our unconscious thoughts carry the weight of our desires, fears, and anxieties. By exploring and analysing these signifiers, we can gain a deeper understanding of our own subjective experiences, as well as the societal forces that shape our identities.
In conclusion, Lacan’s conceptualisation of signifiers in the symbolic order provides a unique lens for understanding the intricate relationship between language, subjectivity, and the unconscious. Signifiers shape our thoughts, desires, and dreams, encoding them within the linguistic framework of the unconscious. By unravelling these signifiers, we can gain insight into the hidden layers of our psyche and the cultural forces that influence our identities. Lacan’s theories challenge us to question the role of language in our lives and to delve deeper into the mysteries of the human mind.