Jacques Lacan Essay

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Jacques Lacan (1901–81) was a French psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher who became an important figure in the history and development of the intellectual movements of poststructuralism and postmodernism with his theories of the subject. He is one of the major poststructuralist thinkers linked to postmodern theory, combining work in theoretical psychoanalysis influenced by Sigmund Freud with French structuralism and the 19th-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, the latter as especially characterized in the lectures of philosopher Alexandre Kojeve dating from the 1930s in Paris. Lacan developed a structural psychoanalysis in which he argued that subjectivity, or philosophical notions of self-identity, emerged in individuals through the discourse of language, which Lacan theorized as having an entirely symbolic function in his psychoanalysis.

Lacan used the term discourse in his works over the term speech in certain cases to emphasize the symbolic nature of language and the fact that it presupposes use by more than just an individual. Lacan’s context in which speech implies an individual speaking to another is the doctor-patient relationship of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Lacan found that the term discourse designated a social bond found in language. Lacan identified four possible types of social bond. These four possible articulations of the symbolic system regulating relations among groups of people are labeled the four discourses: the discourses of the master, the university, the hysteric, and the analyst.

The law in Lacan’s work refers not to a particular article or code of legislation, but to the fundamental principles that inform the entirety of social relations and interactions. The law is conceived as the set of universal principles which make social existence possible and the structures that govern all forms of social exchange. Lacan finds that it is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function, which from the dawn of history has identified his or her person with the figure of the law.

The French word jouissance means basically “enjoyment,” but it has a sexual connotation lacking in the English word and is therefore left in the French in most English translations of Lacan’s work. Lacan emphasized an opposition between pleasure and jouissance in his seminar from 1959 to 1960 titled The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in which jouissance was reinterpreted to represent suffering. Such an intellectual development of Lacan represented his redefinition of the role of human agency and its function in ethics and discourse. In postmodern perspectives on theoretical and critical criminology, jouissance has also been interpreted as elation, the moment when a talking subject connects with his or her objects of desire in a gestalt sense of emotional fullness as opposed to lack. Postmodern criminologists tend to focus on how Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory presupposes an affirmative dimension of language that is capable of functioning as the conditions for the liberation of human agency.

Master Discourses

The discourse of the master is the basic discourse from which Lacan’s other three discourses are derived. The discourse of the master conceals and suppresses the division of the subject. The psychoanalytic discourse characterizes how dynamic the structure of the dialectic between the master and the slave can be, as originally illustrated in the Hegelian philosophy that informed a great deal of Lacan’s thought. The master is the figure who puts the slave to work, and as a result his work functions as a surplus that the master strives to appropriate. The master signifier is that which represents a subject for all other signifiers. The discourse of the master is characterized by totalizing qualities, but such totalizing efforts are never fully achieved because the master signifier can never represent the complete subject as a gestalt. For Lacan, there is an ever-present amount of surplus signification that is not capable of representation in the symbolic system.

The discourse of the university is produced by a shift in the discourse of the master. The dominant position of the master is employed by knowledge in this discourse. This illustrates the fact that behind all attempts to impart a purportedly neutral knowledge to the other there is an orientation and pull toward mastery, situated as mastery of knowledge and the hegemonic control, or domination, of the other imparting such knowledge upon the subject. Such hegemonic knowledge is often viewed as science in contemporary societies.

The discourse of the hysteric is also produced by a shift in discourse of the master, but in a different direction. It is not simply the signification that is generated by the hysteric, but is a specific form of social bond that can inscribe the prototypical Lacanian subject (the patient of psychoanalytic therapy). The dominant position is employed by the divided subject, and it functions as the symptom in Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of signification. This discourse of the hysteric encompasses the social relatedness that moves toward knowledge. Psychoanalytic treatment involves the structural introduction of the discourse of the hysteric in a heuristic and pathological fashion. It so follows that the Lacanian psychotherapist can bring out the hysteria in the patient’s discourse by examining him or her with the everyday tools of structured language and the technique of analysis.

The discourse of the analyst is produced by a shift in the discourse of the hysteric. This is mirrored after Freud’s psychoanalytic technique of allowing the hysteric patient an interpretive turn in the discourse of his or her therapy. The psychoanalyst must here, in the course of the treatment of patients, become the cause, or object, of the patient’s desire. The fact that this discourse is the inverse of the discourse of the master emphasizes that, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is an essentially subversive practice that undermines all attempts at domination and mastery.

Law of the Father

The “name of the father” is a term that applies to those social structures that control an individual’s life. In Lacan’s seminars held in the 1950s, the high point of structuralism in France, the expression referred generally to the prohibitive role of the father as the one who lays down the incest taboo in the Oedipus complex. Lacan found that it is in the name of the father that one must recognize the support of the symbolic function, which from primitive times has identified this person with the figure of the law. Lacan’s symbolic notion of the father has a legislative and prohibitive role in society in this regard.

Lacan found that Freud’s psychoanalysis irresistibly led to the linkage of the appearance of the symbolic notion of the father, as the author of the law, to death—even to the murder of the father, thus showing that although this murder is the fruitful moment of the debt through which the patient of psychoanalysis binds himself for life to the law, the symbolic father, insofar as he signifies this law, is certainly the dead father. It is the father who imposes this law on the subject in the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex’s paternal function in Lacan’s psychoanalysis was nothing more than the name of the father’s prohibitive and legislative role. In the Oedipus complex, the father appears as omnipotent and as the lawgiver, one who is not included in his own derived law because he is the law. If the law is tightly connected to the father, this is not only because the father is the one who imposes the law, but also because the law is born out of such an analysis of a myth by Freud, who strongly influenced Lacan in this manner. In such an Oedipus myth, contained in Freud’s study Totem and Taboo, the murder of the father, far from freeing the sons from the law, only reinforces the law which prohibits incest.


The French word jouissance most commonly is translated into English as meaning “enjoyment,” but it has a sexual connotation in Lacan’s psychoanalytic usage that the English word does not indicate. Lacan employed the term from time to time early in his career, usually in the context of Hegel’s philosophy and the implications of its dialectical relationship between the master and the slave for theoretical psychoanalysis. In this context, the slave is forced to work to provide objects for the master’s enjoyment. At such a point in Lacan’s career, the term seemed to carry the meaning of nothing more than the enjoyable sensation that accompanies the satisfaction of a biological need such as hunger. In the mid and later periods of Lacan’s career, there were sexual connotations to the term that became much more characteristic of his psychoanalytic thought. In such periods, Lacan used the term to refer to the enjoyment of a sexual object of desire and ascribed it to the pleasures of masturbation, and then after he made it explicit that the sense of jouissance connoted was that of orgasm.

Later in his career, starting with his seminar “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,” Lacan developed an opposition between jouissance and pleasure, an opposition which was found in his early influences of Hegel and Kojeve, who had also emphasized a distinction between enjoyment and pleasure. The pleasure principle of Freudian psychoanalysis functions as a limit to enjoyment, and in Lacan’s psychoanalysis it also is a law that commands the subject to enjoy as little as possible. At the same time, the prototypical patient engaged in Lacan’s psychoanalysis constantly attempts to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment and to go beyond the pleasure principle. However the result of transgressing the pleasure principle is not more pleasure, but pain, because there is a limit to the amount of pleasure that the patient of Lacan’s psychoanalysis can bear. Beyond such a devised limit, pleasure transforms into pain, and in this case the resulting painful pleasure is what Lacan calls jouissance.

In this context, jouissance is redefined as suffering. This notion of jouissance for Lacan expresses the paradoxical satisfaction that the patient of psychoanalysis derives from his symptom, which is the suffering that he derives from his own satisfaction. And it is in this sense that Lacan’s seminar “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis” regarded jouissance as an excessive quantity of excitation, which the pleasure principle attempted to prevent.


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