To resume again...

The Desire of Lacan

Femininity between Goodness and Act

A Case of Borgian Psychosis

Lacan's Purloined Linguistics

The Body's Organs and Cindy Sherman's Face

Comme des Garçons

Stepping into History

Interview with
Philip-Lorca diCorcia


Lacan's Purloined Linguistics


Adrian Johnston


You see that by still preserving this "like" (comme), I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say-and I come back to this all the time-that the unconscious is structured by a language.1

Like both the Queen and the Minister in Poe's "The Purloined Letter," Lacan too is made to silently witness the removal of a letter of his by a certain translation and ensuing set of interpretations. This particular purloined letter is none other than the most overquoted phrase from Lacan's textual body: "The unconscious is structured like a language." It is on the basis of a narrow construction of this statement that readings of Lacan as a purely linguistic structuralist hang themselves.

A certain hinge is situated between the unconscious and language: "like" (comme). In maintaining an equivalence between the language spoken in the analysand's monologue and that analysand's very unconscious, there is a tacit reliance on a reading of Lacan's statement that replaces the "like" with an "is" and/or "by."

Lacan stresses the importance of his choice of situating this comme (like) in-between language and the unconscious. He explicitly contrasts comme with par (by); the unconscious is structured like a language, but not by a language. The standard reading of Lacan as a structuralist maintains that, since each individual is born into a world dominated by already-established languages (langues), Lacan's linguistic, ex-sisting unconscious is a product of specific language-systems. Lacan specifically warns against seeing language, understood in any ordinary sense, as the structural cause of the unconscious. Instead, he hints that one is dealing more with a parallel analogy between two similar structures that indissociably interpenetrate each other rather than with an exact equivalence between a cause and an effect.

Apart from the issue of the comme, there is another matter of wording that is crucial to an evaluation of the relationship between language and the unconscious in Lacan. In French the English term "language" can be rendered in two ways: langue and langage. Langue designates an actual, specific language system: English, French, GermanÉ. It's approximately equivalent to the English "tongue," and emphasizes the everyday employment of language. On the other hand, langage is near in meaning to the English "discourse" (it isn't close to the French discours, especially as Lacan uses discours). Instead of stressing the phenomenal side of concrete articulations, as in langue, langage refers to a structured system, grammar, or style that governs the formation of statements: scientific discourse, religious discourse, poetic languageÉ. Julia Kristeva, directly addressing the role of language in psychoanalysis, words it thus:

...the language of dreams and the not identical to la langue studied by linguistics; it is however, made in this langue... At once ultralinguistic and supralinguistic, or translinguistic, the signifying system studied by Freud has a universality that "traverses" constituted national languages, for it is definitely a question of a function of language belonging to all languages.2



1. Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, NY: Norton, 1998, p 48.

2. Kristeva, Julia, Language: The Unknown, NY: Columbia University, 1989, p 272.

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