The Trouble(s) with Lacan

Norman N. Holland

© Copyright 1998, Norman N. Holland, all rights reserved

    I can be quite blunt about it. There are three major troubles with Lacan: his linguistics, his psycholinguistics, and his idea of child development. Let me take them one by one.


    Lacan's most widely quoted maxim is, The unconscious is structured like a language, and like that sentence, Lacan's whole oeuvre rests on a certain idea of language. His proclaimed "return to Freud" meant remedying Freud's failure to use "modern" linguistics. "Modern" linguistics for Lacan, however, means turn-of-the-century linguistics---specifically, Ferdinand de Saussure's. The trouble is that very little of Saussure's linguistics stands up today, after nearly a century's work in linguistics.1 For one thing, Saussure bases his theory on a division of language into langue and parole. Langue is the formal system of signs which is the way he imagines language, and parole is people's actual speaking. The problem is that langue is not a real thing, but some Platonic ideal.2 Parole we see all around us, but how would you define "English" or "French" or "Black English"? It is simply a construct, quite arbitrary, like trying to define what is American or un-American. And like such notions, it is subject to unpleasant sociopolitical uses, particularly in such cases as Black English. You could define English langue as the rules by which we make English sounds and sentences, including lexicon rules, but then you are playing an altogether different linguistic game. You have gone far beyond Saussure into Chomskyan ideas of competence. Those rules we can indeed define, and they are real, as real as viruses or electrons. But that is not Saussure and not Lacan.

    Saussure (and therefore Lacan) presents a second linguistic problem: signifiers and signifieds. For Saussure, language consists of signifiers signifying signifieds. For Saussure, signifier and signified are bound together in the sign, and a language consists of all its signs. Signifiers and signifieds he says, are defined by what they are not, by difference. That is, the sign tree is what it is because it is different from free, it is not three, not true, and so on. Its signified, the concept of a tree, is not the concept of a bush, not a vine, different from the concept of a flower. In short, the sign is what it is because it is not any of the millions of other signs our language affords. Saussure therefore imaged language as a vast piece of paper with all the signifiers on one surface and all the signifieds on the other. As you cut the paper, marking these differences between one signifier and another, one isolate particular signifier-signified pairs or signs.

    In effect, Saussure says language equals the dictionary as though I could understand French by memorizing Larousse or, in Saussure's more sophisticated version, by memorizing all the binary polarities for all the words in the Larousse dictionary. Indeed, Saussure says as much: "Language exists in the form of a sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each member of a community, almost like a dictionary of which identical copies have been distributed to each individual."3 I think that is a very primitive conception of language, reasonable for the 1890s but not for the 1990s. It is a conception of language that really works at best for proper or common nouns, like Saussure's examples, tree and horse or for tightly codified terms, like Lacan's cute example of the paired doors with Men and Women on them. But what do you do with abstract words? What "signified" comes to your mind when I say "hope"? Do you think it could be expressed as a system of differences as easily as the system of differences that defines the sound "hope"? What do you do with open verbs like "go," "do," or prepositions like "in" or "on," the kind of words whose "signifieds" go on for page after page in the OED?

    I say this dictionary version of language "works at best" for common nouns, but this is a very weak and inadequate view of even the individual word. Let me give you an example. I can say,

I persuaded John's mother that John should go to college.
I can say
I persuaded John's mother.
But I shouldn't say
* I persuaded that John should go to college.
It's not grammatical. Why? Because it is a property of the verb persuade that it takes a noun phrase as object plus a noun clause (or some reduction of a noun clause). It cannot take the noun clause unless the noun phrase is also there. This is a marking of the verb persuade and this marking has to be in the lexicon for us to make sentences with that verb.

    Similarly, you can say

I asked what time it was.
Or you can say,
I wondered what time it was.
You can say,
I asked the time.
But it's not grammatical to say,
* I wondered the time.
You can say,
It was asked what time it was.
But you shouldn't say,
* It was wondered what time it was.
This is another case where the verbs ask and wonder must have markings to indicate whether they can be made passive or whether they can take a simple noun phrase as object. You can see a primitive form of this marking when our ordinary dictionaries mark a verb as transitive or intransitive or a noun as a proper noun. But Saussure doesn't even get to that level.

    There are many other problems with Saussure's linguistics. How can such a model as Saussure's account for the constant change in language? When contragate entered our political vocabulary, did it readjust all the billions of patterns of difference from aal to zyxt? How can you use Saussure's linguistics to explain ambiguity? "The old men and women." Does that mean old men and the old women or the old men and all the women? "The shooting of the hunters was terrible." Are we talking about a tragedy or were the deer lucky? "John hit the ball, then Herbert." Did Herbert come to bat or to grief? Does Saussure's linguistics help at all with these questions?

    In general, how can Saussure's dictionary conception of language model the way we combine words into sentences? How does it explain your ability to understand a sentence you have never heard before? Indeed, using Saussure, how do you deal with sentences at all? How do you deal with the fact that even very young children can create complicated sentences they have never heard before? And they can understand complex sentences they have never heard before. How can you account for these facts using only signifiers and signifieds, already shaky as concepts even at the level of single words?

    You may well recognize those last questions. I am simply asking the same questions that Noam Chomsky asked about phrasestructure grammars thirty years ago. It was he who in 1957 finally refuted Saussure and the structural linguistics that developed from Saussure. Chomsky turned linguistics to what what he calls the real and much harder problems, for example, What constitutes knowledge of a language?

    Notice how Chomsky has focused on language as a psychological phenomenon. By contrast, Saussure treats language as a phenomenon "out there" in some sort of Platonic space, apart from the humans who use it.

    Saussure built his linguistics on the unit of the word. One part of Chomsky's 1957 revolution in linguistics was to change that unit of analysis to the sentence. He made his well-known demand, that a grammar should be able to generate all and only the well-formed sentences of a language. Saussure does not even come close to this target.

    Long before Chomsky, however, linguists realized that it would take something more than Saussure's linguistics to interrelate words in phrases and sentences. As it happens, some nineteenth century linguists, Hermann Paul, Karl Brugmann, and William Dwight Whitney, experimented with the idea of deep structures. Saussure knew of their work, and there is at least one passage in students' notes on Saussure's lectures where he seems himself (under the influence of Whitney) to adopt the idea.4 In his Cours, however, he insists, as we have seen, on confining himself to the linguistic surface. Hence he was able to offer only a very primitive way of explaining how we put words together to form sentences.

    I find Saussure's idea of a sentence difficult to grasp.5 He seems to conclude that one builds sentences along "two natural co- ordinates": association and syntagms. Association groups words (or inflections or any morpheme, really) according to meanings. Associations determine what is possible at any given slot in the sentence. He defined the "syntagm" as consecutive signifier-signified units. Syntagmatics arranges elements in linear order, thereby creating slots, but one cannot (according to Saussure) study word order apart from its concrete manifestations. That is, one cannot consider the slots apart from the words that actually fill them. "To think that there is an incorporeal syntax outside material units distributed in space would be a mistake."6 Thus he rules deep structure out in favor of the supposed reality of the mythical entity called "English" or "French." He rules out the very possibility of deep structure.

    Furthermore, the only syntagms in langue, he proclaimed, were pat phrases dictated by tradition, things like Good morning or il y a. Once a language fact depends on individual freedom, we are in the realm of parole, and for him, "The sentence . . . . belongs to speaking [parole], not to language [langue]."7 Hence sentences are beyond his scope.

    Chomsky sums Saussure's system up this way: "In Saussurean structuralism, a language (langue) was taken to be a system of sounds and an associated system of concepts; the notion of sentence was left in a kind of limbo, perhaps to be accommodated within the study of language use." "Saussurean structuralism had placed . , . `free expressions' outside of the scope of the study of language structure, of Saussure's langue." As a result, "The fundamental question of the use and understanding of new sentences is left without any explanation."8

    Lacan apparently tried to deal with the problem of sentences in Saussure by adding to Saussure a linguistic idea of Roman Jakobson's. Enlarging on Saussure's brief and inconclusive remarks, Jakobson helped out with two principles to account for sentences. It is obvious that we make sentences by putting one word after another. First, "The man." Then "hit." Then "the." Then "ball." It is equally obvious that at any given point in that process we can substitute other words. Instead of "The man," we could say "The woman," or "Herbert." Instead of "ball," we could substitute other nouns or phrases to produce, "The man hit the child," or "The man hit the nail on the head," or "The man hit the road." Jakobson thus formalized Saussure's two-axis model of sentence formation. Following Saussure, he named these two principles the paradigmatic (the vertical axis of selection) and the syntagmatic (the horizontal axis of sequential combination)." At other times Jakobson called the paradigmatic axis of section metaphor and the syntagmatic axis of sequential combination metonymy. Then Lacan approximated Jakobson's metonymy (roughly, sequence) and metaphor (roughly, substitution) to Freud's "condensation" and "displacement," and in turn to other linguists' "syntagm" and "paradigm."

    Jakobson was a distinguished linguist, but he developed these particular ideas before Chomsky's 1957 revolution in linguistics. Chomsky replaced Jakobson's metaphor and metonymy with a far subtler system of transformations of kernel sentences, a system that Chomsky himself and many other linguists have still further sophisticated.

    Lacan, however, stuck with Jakobson, even when writing long after 1957. Lacan seems to have preferred simple two-valued systems. That is, we have but two items, metaphor and metonymy, with which to account for sentence production. We have but signifier and signified to account for language. And we have but conscious and unconscious to model the mind.

    Be that as it may, Jakobson's system doesn't account for the way we build sentences any more than Saussure's. Jakobson and Saussure are describing what Chomsky calls a "finite-state grammar." In such a grammar, "Sentences are generated by means of a series of choices made `from left to right'; that is to say, after the first, or leftmost element has been selected, [the probability of] every subsequent choice is determined by the immediately preceding elements."9 Chomsky showed in 1957 that none of these could in principle account for sentence production. That is, none could account for a sentence in which the selection of one element depends on the presence or absence of another element elsewhere in the sentence.

    Consider the pair of sentences in Chomsky's well- known example:

John is eager to please.

John is easy to please.
At first glance, they look as though they were built along Jakobsonian lines. Just substitute "eager" for "easy." But the underlying meanings are quite different. In the first sentence, John is active, in the second, passive. In the first John is doing things, in the second John is being done for. But in the linguistic world of Saussure, Jakobson, and Lacan, the only difference between those two sentences is the difference between "eager" and "easy.

    There are still more complex examples (studied in the later phases of Chomsky's work). The point is that identical phrasings can have quite different meanings depending on what comes before or after:

John is too angry to talk to Bill.

John is too angry to talk to.
In one case, John is doing the talking, in the other, someone other than John, so that the seven signifiers, is too angry to talk to mean quite different things. In other words, a given signifier can mean different things depending on other elements in the sentence. Similarly,
I wonder who the hunters expected to see them.

I wonder who the hunters expected to see.
In the first sentence, the hunters are seen. In the second, they do the seeing.
The horse raced round the barn.

The horse raced round the barn fell.
In the first sentence, the horse did the racing. In the second, someone else did.

    There is no need to belabor the point. When we compose or understand sentences we use structures that deal with more than the surface produced. We use rules in which the choice of words in one part of a sentence is dictated by the choice of words in an earlier or later part. Furthermore, these structures can be exceedingly complex. I would find it quite impossible to say for the hunters sentences how I know that the first "them" refers to the hunters themselves.

    Saussure did not recognize that any formal account of language strong enough to deal with sentences and discourse (to say nothing of a psychological account of humans using language) has to include more systems than just a lexicon. It also (and most importantly) has to include the interactions among these different systems. Saussure's account of language deals only with surface features and makes no provision for deep structures or transformations between deep and surface structures. Saussure has no way, for example, of declaring any sentence grammatical or non- grammatical. However a language is structured, it is not structured the way Saussure says it is, nor do Jakobson's metonymy and metaphor take us further.

    That is the first "trouble with Lacan." Lacan goes wrong by relying (quite uncritically!) on Saussure's signifier-signified conception of language. It is understandable that Lacan, when he began to write in the 1930s, should learn Saussure's turn-of-the-century linguistics. But even at the end of his life he and now his followers write about signifiers and signifieds as though the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics had never happened. Contemporary literary theorists tirelessly quote Saussure. But why? Today's linguists no more use Saussure's model than today's physicists use the concept of phlogiston.

    I do not mean to suggest that linguists have all adopted Chomsky's views. They are still controversial, and he would be the first to acknowledge that they are subject to revision in the light of further evidence. Linguists who reject Chomsky's ideas, however, are trying to offer alternatives or to go beyond Chomsky. They are not turning back to Saussure. My point is not that Chomsky is right but that Saussure and Lacan are wrong.

    Chomsky is not being unduly harsh when he calls Saussure's linguistics an "impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language," at best adequate for its time but finally leading to unimportant research and feedback.10 A theory (like Saussure's) that language understanding is purely semantic, reports Mitchell Marcus, is "fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language" and "held by no current researchers, to my knowledge."11 In writing this essay, for example, I had trouble finding linguistic texts that even refer to Saussure. Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics, Lacanians, and the occasional philosopher. "Wrong on a grand scale," cognitive linguist Mark Turner calls it them.12 And it has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that even mention Chomsky.

    It will be said---it has been said to me by Lacanian friends---that this objection to Lacan, that he uses a mistaken and outmoded linguistics, does not count because Lacan only uses Saussure for his own psychological purposes. Saussure is only a metaphor in Lacan's thinking. Lacan brought him in to establish himself in the Parisian intellectual community.

    I find this justification unconvincing for two reasons. First, it does not fit our use of metaphor. When we use a metaphor to understand somethng, we use something we understand well to understand something we understand less well. We take an idea from a well-understood "source domain" to understand a more puzzling "target domain." If I say life is a journey, I use something I am familiar with and understand quite well, journeys, to understand something more mysterious, life. I can then model difficulties in my life as obstacles in the path or choices as forks in road, and so on. Even so simple a metaphor can become quite sophisticated, as in Robert Frost's well-known lines,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ---
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But this is not what Lacan does when he uses Saussure. He uses a still- mysterious subject, language, to understand a subject that Freud and many others have made understandable, namely, unconscious processes. Rather than clarify an opacity in psychoanalysis, he has made it more opaque and arcane. It would be strange indeed to claim that Lacan explains things clearly.

    Furthermore, his account of his source domain, language, is wrong. What happens to our use of metaphor to explore an unknown if the source term is an error or an illusion? For example, suppose our original notion of journeys was that they all take place in elevators, up and down, not across roads toward destinations. What happens then even to a familiar metaphor like life is a journey? It stops making sense. Ideas of crossroads or forks in the road or obstacles cannot help us understand life at all. The same is true of Lacan's use of Saussure: it does not help us understand unconscious processes at all---or at least no better than Freud's and others' direct accounts. It has also been said to me, particularly by French analysts, that now Lacan has been "passed," that Lacan is only important and in that he bought France to an awareness of psychoanalysis. He could not have done so except by using Saussure and the structural linguistics popular when Lacan began to make a difference in French intellectual life. I find this justification as odd as the other. Are we to take Lacan seriously as thinker because he is a popularizer? Further, to what kind of psychoanalysis has he led French psychoanalysts, some French psychoanalysts, that is? To a psychoanalysis that is more philosophy than psychology. To abstract and metaphysical reasoning far removed from clinical experience. And that brings me to Lacan's second trouble, his psycholinguistics.


    Lacan presents psycholinguistic problems as well as linguistic. Even if Chomsky were all wrong, Lacan has made a still more fundamental error in psychologizing Saussure's account of language. Over and over again, Lacan claims that linguistic entities are in fact psychological entities. The most notorious instance where he converts a linguistic entity to a psychological one is, of course, signifier and signified. Lacan identifies the signifier pretty with the conscious and Saussure's signified with Freud's unconscious. Then the linguistic barre that Saussure posited between signifier and signified, Lacan equates to Freud's repression.

    As we have seen, Lacan approximates Jakobson's metonymy (roughly, sequence) and Jakobson's metaphor (roughly, substitution) to Freud's "condensation" and "displacement," and in turn to other linguists' "syntagm" and "paradigm." In other words, what he does is say that these linguistic entitities are in fact psychological entities.

    Similarly, the barre Saussure posited between signifier and signified comes to equal Freud's repression. The linguist's barre becomes the psychoanalyst's bar between conscious and unconscious, and the signifier cannot cross it. The hidden signifieds are the unconscious, and the signifiers are the "empty speech" with which we try to express, as in free associations, our real (unconscious) selves. We necessarily fail, because signifiers signify other signifiers, not signifieds. Conscious and unconscious are thus opposed in one of Lacan's two-valued systems.

    In effect, Lacan renders all psychic determinism as the single linguistic process of a signifier signifying other signifiers. That's quite a role for a process that modern linguists doubt even exists.

    The major place where Lacan converts a linguistic entity to a psychological one is, of course, with signifier and signified. Lacan identifies the signifier pretty closely with the conscious and Saussure's signified with Freud's unconscious. Then he modifies Saussure with what he regards as the essence of Freud's discoveries, the barre which equals repression and marks off conscious from unconscious.. "Écrits," write Benvenuto and Kennedy of Lacan's cornerstone book, "is fundamentally concerned with the laws of the signifier."13 The essence of Freud's discovery is, Lacan himself writes,

that the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects in their acts, in their destiny, in their refusals, their blind spots, their end and fate, their innate gifts and social acquisitions . , . without regard for character or sex, and that, willingly or not, everything that might be considered the stuff of psychology, kit and caboodle, will follow the path of the signifier. 14
In effect, Lacan renders all psychic determinism as the single linguistic process of signification. That's quite a role for a process that modern linguists doubt even exists!

    What is fascinating to me about this maneuver is that it exactly reverses the assumption that Saussure had to make when he set out to build his linguistics. Saussure knew that a psychological account of our use of language was beyond him or anybody else in the 1890s. He sensibly chose to ignore the human element. Anyway, he wanted to develop a formal account of language, to give "language first place in the study of speech."15 As Saussure tells us at the beginning and end of his lectures, his aim was to free linguistics from ethnography, social or individual psychology, physiology, philology, and everything else that is not linguistics. He wanted to model language in purely linguistic terms. "The true and unique object of linguistics is language studied in and for itself."16 "From the very outset we must put both feet on the ground of language [le terrain de la langue] and use language as the norm of all other manifestations of speech."17 He wanted a linguistics that would account for language strictly as language, that would have nothing to do with the way real people use language.

    He simply and briefly assumed an associationist psychology which was adequate for his purposes: "the psychological association of the [sound-]image with the corresponding concept."18 He just posited "signifying." Somehow, physical sounds or differences in physical sounds convert into psychological concepts or differences in psychological concepts it doesn't matter how. Signifiers simply evoke signifieds automatically. A given (difference in) sound "imprints" a certain arbitrarily connected (difference in) sense. Meaning thus becomes meaning-out-there, in language (wherever that is), not meaning-in-here, in our minds. Then, once Saussure had bracketed the human element, he could go on to develop his purely formal account of language. The assumption enabled him to found structural linguistics, but it has no psychological credibility at all.

    Saussure deliberately dropped out the human element, In Saussure's model, a signifier's difference from other signifiers simply imprints a difference from other ideas in the hearer's mind, and this is where Saussure thinks he eludes psychology. He has only swept it under the rug, though, hiding the psychological process in the word "imprints." Saussure's "signifying," far from being something the theorist of literature or film can take for granted, rests on a highly questionable but unexamined set of psychological premises.

    Chomsky notes, as I do, the links between behaviorist psychology and this "structural linguistics." Both structural linguistics and behaviorist psychology avoid the notion of the active or autonomous individual in favor of a subject subject to linguistic laws or stimulus-response laws. In 1964, Chomsky correctly identified (as I am doing) the structural linguistics that derives from Saussure as "radical behaviorist reductionism."19 It is an extreme stimulus-response, behaviorist picture of the mind that among psychologists, even the most devout of Skinnerians might not endorse.

    Now comes Lacan and confuses matters further. Saussure was trying to de-psychologize linguistics. But Lacan re- psychologizes Saussure's linguistics. Lacan is using a formal theory of language to explain empirical events in the mind. Saussure was trying precisely not to say what goes on in your or my mind when we understand a word or make up a sentence, and, within the limits of his theory, he succeeded. Lacan, however, applies Saussure's carefully apsychological theory to describe precisely what it avoided describing.

     To be sure, Lacan radically changes Saussure. Lacan changes the signifiers-signified relation. For him, signifiers do not point to signifieds but to other signifiers. But what Lacan does not change is the principle that signifiers signify. That remains axiomatic. Lacan retains the basic idea that the signifier does things.

    In Lacanian psychoanalysis the structuralists' behaviorist notion of signification still prevails. Its inventor, Saussure, never meant it to be a psychological process, and modern linguists no longer take it seriously. Nevertheless, Lacan substitutes signification for association, memory, learning, and ultimately all other psychological processes. The chain of signifiers, running along according to its own laws, determines the I, and the determinism is total, says Lacan. What results is a psychoanalysis which is really, underneath, a stimulus-response behaviorism. Lacan by combining Saussure's linguistics with Freud makes Freud into the 1890s psychologies that Saussure had sense enough to avoid.

    When Saussure (or Lacan following him) equates a formal description of language to the psychology of language-users, he makes the entailings of formal linguistics into stimulus-response in the mind. It is easy to see what has gone wrong if we consider arithmetic instead of language. In a formal sense, adding one to the first number "generates" all the rest of the integers. Yes, in a purely formal way,

n+1, (n+1)+1, ((n+1)+1)+1, . , .
"signifies" all the whole, positive numbers. But that "generates" or "signifies" does not describe what goes on in your mind or mine when we count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . Presenting ((n+1)+1)+1 to us does not stimulate the set of integral numbers in our minds.

    Neither does tree stimulate a concept of a tree. The process of understanding language is far more complex. Chomsky followed his 1957 rebuttal of phrase-structure grammars in Syntactic Structures with a devastating review in 1959 of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book that attempted to explain human language skills in behaviorist terms. In both instances, Chomsky showed that it is both logically and empirically impossible to account for language proficiency in terms of stimulus-response chains. Yet that is just what Lacan assumes.

    Saussure formalized language as a sheet of signifying differences mapped onto a sheet of signified differences. Whatever its linguistic credibility (and that is very limited in 1990), this idea of signifying entails a radically behaviorist, stimulus-response psychology of language.

    Despite the claims of a "return to Freud" and the psychoanalytic subject-matter, Lacan, by re-psychologizing Saussure, posits a linguistic stimulus-response of the most radical kind. In other words, Lacan assumes that language combines and recombines itself apart from the speaking subject. Whatever his other changes from Saussure, he keeps the premise that words are the active ones in the psychological or, more precisely, the psycholinguistic process. It is language that means, not readers or hearers who make meaning. The chain of signifiers, running along according to its own laws, determines the I, and the determinism is total, says Lacan. Or perhaps we should call it, as Raymond Tallis does, "the dance of signifiers," the "Lacan-can."20

    Not only does Lacan's claim make the philosophical error of using Saussure's formal description of language psychology as if it were an empirical one, he is also wrong on empirical grounds. That is, I cannot think of a serious psycholinguist who would agree with Saussure's or Lacan's account of the way we understand language.

    Indeed, today's cognitive science shows the opposite. Words do not simply imprint meanings on our minds, as Saussure thought. Words require considerable processing, for example, through schemata and feedback loops. Any elementary textbook in the psychology of reading or the psychology of language would make this clear.21 The only justification for Saussure's and Lacan's idea that signifiers impose themselves on persons is the apparently compelling need of some intellectuals to feel that the individual is not autonomous. Their account is simply and unequivocally false by today's standards.

    For one thing, it is too simple. Where our knowledge of the architecture and chemistry of the brain would suggest continuum and flow and feedback, Lacan substitutes abrupt discontinuities, simple yes-nos. Where both-and makes sense, Lacan substitutes either-or and becomes able to write paradoxes. The paradoxes result from Lacan's replacing a more complex, systems model language with Saussure's two-valued account of language as differences in signifiers signifying differences in signifieds. It is Saussure's barre which justifies Lacan's idea of the split and alienated self. But the barre is not a good linguistic concept, and psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psycholinguists do not regard the self as split.

    Rather, it is clear to me that Lacan's insistence on a split and self-alientated self contradicts an experience familiar to anyone in analysis. One of the things you learn on the couch is that your ordinary, conscious activities express and partially fulfill deep, early, and unconscious wishes.

    It is precisely that experience that Lacan denies. In doing so, he claims to be rescuing psychoanalysis from the ego psychologists, whom he portrays as preaching adaptation to society and fleeing the subversive truths discovered by Freud a. (That is, Lacan misreads Heinz Hartmann's biological concept of adaptation as a social one.) But in fact, what Lacan has done is convert Freud's complex truths into a simple yes-no, on-off, binary system. He has left no place for sublimation.

    To be sure, Saussure's all-or-nothing, sound- concept dichotomies have a certain modish appeal. They are certainly easier to understand than Chomsky's and post-Chomskyan models. But they are no substitute for the human element in explaining how we create and understand language. They lead to a false psychology and a false psychoanalysis.

    When Lacan gives to Saussure's formal model of language a psychological validity, Lacan builds his thinking on the idea of a self-running language. Finally that renders his thought profoundly anti- psychoanalytic.


    I have concentrated on Lacan's use of the false and outmoded linguistics of Saussure, because it seems to me central to his system. Similar problems attach to another fundamental Lacanian concept: "the mirror stage."22 As a concept it is analogous to self-object differentiation in ordinary psychoanalysis. In ordinary psychoanalysis, though, self-object differentiation leaves the child with an identity, while in Lacan it leaves the child with a basic "lack of being."

    The child, says Lacan, identifies with its mirror image---and Lacan insists on an actual mirror, not some "mirroring behavior" from a parent. That is how the child forms an ego (the illusion of autonomy). Lacan claims a uniform or continuing process from six to eighteen months. He claims that throughout these twelve months the infant can recognize his own image any time in that period as such. That is to say, the infant recognizes that the image in the mirror is an image of the infant himself. Lacan then goes on to claim that the infant makes a judgment, namely that this image is unified, coherent, more so than the infant. The infant believes that he is capable of controlling it. Finally, Lacan claims that the infant recognizes the image and makes these judgment before speech. Lacan writes of "This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence . , . The I is precipitated in a primordial form, before . , . language restores to it . , . its function as subject."

    But what is the evidence for such a mirror stage? As usual, Lacan pays precious little attention to evidence. He mentions neither experimental evidence nor clinical material. Instead he cites a 1925 book by Wolfgang Köhler on the behavior of chimpanzees. He refers, without telling you what it is, to James Mark Baldwin's book on child development from 1903.

    Now this may be reasonable for Lacan. After all, he was inventing the mirror stage in 1936, and he may not have had access to any better data. But what about Lacanians of today? I have yet to see a Lacanian refer to the careful videotapes of infant behavior by Daniel Stern?23 Or Margaret Mahler's direct observation of nine infants' behavior with mirrors?24 Or indeed, the score or more of articles on infants' behavior in front of mirrors that even a cursory search of Psychological Abstracts turns up?25

    When we look at these more sophisticated studies, we find that there is no evidence whatsoever for Lacan's notion of a mirror stage. What we find is that infants' behavior in front of mirrors is not a uniform process during the period from six to eighteen months, as Lacan claims. It is true that children uniformly show pleasure in playing with and responding to their own mirror images throughout the period from three to twenty-four months. What they respond pleasurably to is what is called "contingent behavior." That is, the child can make the image in the mirror move, the same way it can swat a mobile over its crib and make it move. Children enjoy demonstrating that kind of power. At age eight to nine months, the infant uses mirrors to reach for objects, for other people, and for itself. That is, the infant realizes that the image is an image, and it has some sense of the geometry of reflection. According to Margaret Mahler's observations, from twelve to eighteen months, chldren identify the image as itself by pointing, naming, or by saying the personal pronoun. In the more precise experiments by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Michael Lewis(Lewis, Brooks 1985)(Lewis, Brooks-Gunn, Jaskir 1985), using rouge spots surreptitiously placed on the face, by fifteen months and not before, children begin to identify the image in the mirror as themselves, and they begin to exhibit self-conscious behavior. They pose, for example. They do not show the jubiliation Lacan claims. In sum, up to fifteen months, no children pass the rouge test, and by twenty-four months, all normal children have passed the rouge test. There is, by the way, a similar sequence of behaviors for children seeing themselves on video monitors or in videotapes, but slower.

    This is quite a different picture from Lacan. By the time children can recognize their mirror images as themselves, most of them have already started using language. Children seem nervous and self- conscious in front of this recognized image, not jubilant as Lacan claims. There is no sign that the child makes a judgment that this image is unified or in some sense more powerful or otherwise different from self. Indeed, how could there be a sign of such a thing? What the child is finding out is that the image in fact reflects the self.

    In short, there is no evidence for Lacan's notion of a mirror stage. Indeed what evidence we have runs rather the other way. As I say, perhaps Lacan knew no better in 1936, but why do present-day Lacanians go on quoting this mish-mash of conjecture and false assertions?

    The same objection applies to Lacan's linguisterie. Why do Lacanians keep on talking about signifiers and signifieds and the system erected upon them? A simple look at the Encyclopedia Brittannica article on linguistics or any elementary textbook on linguistics would show that all this signifier-signified stuff is outmoded and wrong.


    Finally, then, I think there are two things to remember. One, whenever you hear the terms signifier, signified, or signifying in Saussure's sense, whenever you hear metaphor or metonymy in Jakobson's sense, you are dealing with a weak, outmoded, and finally incorrect linguistics. You have found the weak point in the argument, and you can dig in at that point, if you wish to topple it. All these moves that assume text- active models of literary response are simply disguises for an old-fashioned, stimulus-response psychology or, more accurately, a stimulus-response psycholinguistics that simply won't hold water.

    The second thing is that Lacan is profoundly anti- psychoanalytic. When Lacan adopts Saussure's idea of "signifying," he drops all of us out. He drops us out of speaking, out of understanding language, or out of feeling roused by a poem or a movie. He drops us out of understanding one another, understanding oneself, and out of psychoanalyzing and being psychoanalyzed. It is one thing for Saussure to drop out the human element. He did not want to try to do psychology. But what are we to say of a psychoanalyst who does not want to do psychology? And what can such a psychoanalysis contribute to literature, philosophy, or, quite simply, our understanding of the world around and within us?


1 For an excellent and very readable survey of contemporary linguistics, see Pinker (1994).

2 Chomsky (1986, pp. 19-28) contrasts E- language, external language, a fiction, with I-language, internal language, that is, the rules we know to speak and understand English---no fiction.

3 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 38; Engl., p. 19.

4 I am indebted to my colleague in the linguistics program at the University of Florida, D. Gary Miller, for this information.

5 Saussure (1915) discusses sentences at Fr., p. 176-192; Engl., p. 127-139.

6 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 139; Engl., p. 191.

7 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 172; Engl., p. 124.

8 Chomsky (1986), pp. 19 and 32.

9 In this and the next paragraph, I am drawing on John Lyons' excellent introduction to Chomsky's work (Lyons 1978, 45). See also Chomsky (1957), ch. 3.

10 Chomsky (1972), p. 20. Fix numbers from here on.

11 Marcus (1984), 254-55.

12 Turner (1987), p. 12.

13 Benvenuto and Kennedy (1986), p. 24.

14 Lacan (1956), p. 32; (1972), p. 60. Benvenuto and Kennedy (1986) cite this astonishing passage on p. 99.

15 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 317; Engl., p. 232.

16 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 317; Engl., p. 232.

17 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 25; Engl., p. 9;.

18 Saussure (1915), Fr., p. 28; Eng. 12.

19 Chomsky (1964), p. 25.

20 Tallis (1988), p. 153.

21 For a sample of the literature in this field see Crowder (1982); Dillon (1978); Kintgen (1983); Kolers (1972); Laberge and Samuels (1977); Meek (1983); Smith (1982); Spiro, Bruce, and Brewer (1980); or Taylor and Taylor (1983).

22 Lacan (1949; 1966/1977), but see also Benvenuto and Kennedy (1986), p. 47.

23 Stern (1971; 1974; 1977).

24 Mahler and McDevitt, (1982).

25 Amsterdam (1969, 1972); Lewis (1985a, 1985b); Dixon (1957); Gallup (1979); Brooks-Gunn (1975, 1984; Kronen (1982).

Works Cited

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-----. "Mirror Self-image Reactions Before Age Two." Developmental Psychobiology 5 (1972): 297-305.

Baldwin, James Mark. Mental Development in the Child and the Race: Methods and Processes. 2nd ed. New York and London: Macmillan, 1903.

Benvenuto, Bice, and Roger Kennedy. The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Michael Lewis. "The Development of Early Visual Self Recognition in Infancy." Developmental Review 4 (1984): 215-39.

-----. "Mirror-image Stimulation and Self-Recognition in Infancy." 1975. ERIC ED no. 114 193.

Chomsky, Noam. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. The Hague: Mouton, 1964.

-----. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use. Convergence: A Series Founded, Planned, and Edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. New York: Praeger, 1986.

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-----. "A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior." Language 35 (1959): 26-58. The Structure of Language: Readings in the Philosophy of Language. Ed. Jerry A. Fodor and Jerrold J. Katz. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 547-78.

-----. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton, 1957.

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Dixon, J. C. "Development of Self-recognition." Journal of Genetic Psychology 91 (1957): 251-56.

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-----. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 1949. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. 1-7.

-----. "Le Séminaire sur `La Lettre Volée.'" La Psychanalyse 2 (1956b): 1-44.

-----. "The Seminar on `The Purloined Letter'" Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 38-72. 1956b.

-----. "Le Stade Du Miroir comme Formateur de la Fonction Du Je." Revue françlaise de psychanalyse 4 (1949): 449-55.

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-----. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Reidlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

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Norman N. Holland

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