Semiotics and Psychoanalysis
Here is some information on the concept on psychoanalytic theory and terms regarding the subject. This will help you learn some of the history on how it all started from philosophers and other influences. Take a look at our psychology resources as you continue your psychology research and studies.
The concept of the self, language and meaning are essential elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, but the work of Kaja Silverman, Jacques Marie Émile Lacan other scholars in psychiatry, philosophy, linguistics and semiotics (the sciences which study the world of reality created by signs and culture) have added deeper interpretations and dimension to Freud’s work.
Their work links ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics and offers a new framework to understand the commonly-held idea that a person is totally conscious of themselves and that their language and symbols accurately depict reality. Using this framework, Silverman (1947-Present), a film theorist and art historian, suggests that the “reality” we experience is the by-product of the activities we do that are also determined by our culture. Further, the reasons why we do many things are driven by cultural and group forces.
In the Freudian world, the main forces are human drives and psychic needs, which must interact with the worlds of custom and law. Psychoanalysis offers a different definition of the self. Silverman points out that the self becomes a “subject,” who processes and categorizes symbols and symbols, at the pre-conscious and sub-conscious levels. This distinction becomes necessary because everyone has a unique self, but in a philosophical sense, the self is constructed of symbols, what the philosophers call “sign systems,” how we internalize these systems and our individualism. Since these are incompatible forces, the ego emerges to both repress and combine these competing forces.
The concept of the self as subject is treated differently by Jacques Marie Émile Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and philosopher (1901-1981), who is considered the greatest and most controversial psychiatrist since Freud.
Lacan has been accused of denying the existence of the self, but he really re-cast the self as not being and institutionalized self-image, but as being the construct of signs. These signs comprise subjectivity and are constructed from their existence, as well as their absence.
From this, Lacan proposed that a being is comprised of their signs and symbols. The self gives way to the ego, which itself is comprised of signs and how we process those signs. To Lacan, there is an ego, but it changes based on the signs and symbols which are used to process it. In analysis, the analyst must address the subject, but also be aware that they are dealing with messages contained in internalized symbols and signs.
The Freudian concept of self begins in infancy when a child becomes aware that they are driven by libidinal forces, without any boundaries between themselves and the outside world. This infantile self must pass through the Oedipal drama, which flows back from unconscious and conscious being, and the developing recognition that Oedipal desires must be contained.
The main driver behind this process is culture. Silverman notes that culture shapes human desires and forbidden behaviors. These taboos are culturally determined, so that even though Freud asserts that the subconscious is formed by repression, then repression itself, Silverman writes, is determined by culture. In short, how we experience life is culturally determined.
Freud defined repression as the re-direction of the pursuit of pleasurable activities into more socially and economically beneficial activities. This posits the dominance of the reality principal over the pleasure principle. One of the key tenets in Freud’s work is that any repressed energies will re-emerge in a different form, either in psychic disorders or other neurotic behavior. These disorders can take the form of neuroses or psychoses.
Neuroses, which can be classified as obsessional, hysterical, or phobic, occur when a conflict occurs between the tension which arises between the need to satisfy and the ego’s role of containing pleasurable desires. Neurotic symptoms can be dissolved when the analyst takes the patient through the process of discovering the hidden causes for the conflict, so they can re-live and re-create the arrested development. Psychosis, commonly manifested in paranoia and schizophrenia, occurs when the ego succumbs to the power of the unconscious.
Under analysis, people speak with an individual voice. But psychoanalysis recognizes that semiotics and language shape individuals, so the unconscious has also been formed by language. The unconscious is developed by repression and reveals itself through language and the use of inaccurate words (parapraxes) which occur in speech even when they have to break through the vigilant screen of the conscious. The unconscious is driven by libidinal forces and is evident in all people.
Hence, a patient, speaking to an analyst with their conscious voice also has greater meaning that exists outside of language itself. The key to discovering deeper meanings comes from de-constructing the language into what is said and unsaid. What it articulated and omitted. What is said and what is seemingly forgotten. Meaning is contained in the language, but it also resides in what is said and what resides in the unconscious. Since culture determines what is said and what cannot be discussed, it creates conditions under which events and emotions are repressed. This repression act to suppress our interpretation of events before they become conscious thoughts.
However, a trained observer can detect differences and omissions in language which indicate what may be repressed or unconscious. Thus, the goal of an analyst is to reply back to the subject what they hear, so the subject begins to understand their own drives, which are unknown to them. The analyst then repeats back to the subject what they have said, so they can refrain from saying it again. The analyst can then prompt the subject to confront their Other.
The Contribution of Jacques Lacan
Lacan stressed that the unconscious only indicates itself through language and that it has a structure that conveys its meanings through what is repeated and expressed. Lacan equated meaning with being, so expressed meaning does not indicate total meaning, which largely remains unconscious. Rules of speech also govern what is not said to repress meanings. This process precedes a subject’s speech, so essentially signs and symbols are filtering out meanings at the subconscious level. An analyst can listen to what is said and then make inferences about the unconscious.
To Lacan, the unconscious not only exists, but is has a structure like any language. Its meaning can only be determined through language, which can be better understood through its linguistic structure. It also comes into existence as a result of a subject’s relationships with others. As a result, it is not something which occupies an internal part of the brain, but a complex, inter-connected network that is woven within.
Lacan’s other key point is that the unconscious always attains its goals (positive or negative), but these goals remain largely hidden from the subject because they are part of what they cannot understand. What the subject does not understand, Lacan posits, is embedded in the Oedipal drama with the Father assuming the role of the Other, or the non-linguistic part of the subject. This goal is made more difficult to identify because it is part of the unconscious or an unknown part of themself.
As Freud and others have noted, cultural formation starts at the family level, where sexual differentiation is taught, especially as it relates to relationships between a child and their mother and father. To Freud, human sexuality progressed through three distinct psychic stages: oral, anal and phallic, each based on their origins of providing pleasure. These stages were marked as progressions through, and the re-channeling, of the libidinal, or psychic-sexual, drive. The objects of this drive can change over time.
The pursuit of pleasure is drives the Id, but the pursuit of pleasure should not be confused with the pleasure principle. In Freudian terminology, this is not done for the pursuit of pleasure, but to avoid uncomfortable situations that arise from repressing or avoiding prohibited actions. While the Id is a form of self, it is balanced by the ego and superego. The ego emerges when it takes on the motives driving the reality principal. The superego represents an idealized image of the primary figure in one’s life, including his accompanying power, access and any restraints he would impose of behavior.
This provides the origin of Freudian uses of the symbolic Oedipal and powerful paternal, or phallus, concepts. This relationship begins when the child recognizes the primary status of the father as the head of the social unit and the person who prevents the ultimate love connection between the child and the mother. When this relationship is formalized, it gives the child a position within the social and symbolic family order. When the child’s desire for the mother is recognized as being taboo, that guilty feeling is repressed. This is the process which feeds the unconscious.
Since the Oedipal concept is symbolic, Lacan adopted the approach used by the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his work in making connections between culture and linguistics. The link between psychoanalysis, culture and linguistics led to a concept called the “symbolic register.” This is the symbolic-linguistic statement of desire which reflects the Oedipal complex. The symbolic register is unique to each culture since it serves as a registry for unconscious desires. Lacan asserts that these reflect the attributes of each patriarchal modern Western culture.
As a philosopher, Lacan’s development of linguistic connections to the unconscious also made a significant contribution to literary criticism. Specifically, he proposed that textuality is comprised of filiation, or the relationship between father and son, which is also culturally dependent. Examining filiation adds new meaning to the text both in terms of what it contains in the text and in terms of what is lacking. This later contribution supplemented deconstruction. His contribution also infused new meaning into texts as it interacts with readers. In this way, the text analyzes a subject and can open ways of discovering new meanings within ourselves. The text becomes an instrument for self-discovery.
As a result of Lacan’s contribution to literary criticism, some have said Lacan sought to erase the boundary between psychoanalysis and literature. This claim can be made since Lacan proposed that reading offers the opportunity to gain new self-insights and cultural examination. He also addresses the issue that human beings are in a constant state of envy or the pursuit of controlling or mastering, which can never be attained. At the same time, he recognized that being is defined by language, but it is also its prisoner.