Language and the Symbolic

This is the point at which the child enters the register of the symbolic. It is at this stage, according to Lacan, that the child also enters the "language system." Absence, lack, and separation characterize the language system, according to Lacan, because language names things which are not immediately present ("signifieds") and substitutes words ("signifiers") for them. This is also the beginning of socialization, says Lacan. Just as the child realizes that sexual identity is the result of an originary difference between mother and father, it comes to grasp that language itself is an unending chain of "differences," and that the terms of language are what they are only by excluding one another. Signs always presuppose the absence of the objects they signify—an insight which Lacan inherited from structuralist anthropology and linguistics.

The loss of the precious object that is the mother's body drives desire to seek its satisfaction in incomplete or partial objects, none of which can ever fully satisfy the longing bred by the loss of the maternal body. People try vainly to settle for substitute objects, or what Lacan calls the "object little a." Lacan's thinking was heavily influenced by structuralist thinkers such as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) and linguists Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). Lacan's chief claim, based upon his readings of Saussure and Jakobson, is that the unconscious is "structured like a language." Lacan refashioned Freud's terminology of psychic condensation and displacement by translating them into what Lacan believed to be their equivalent rhetorical terms: metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor works by condensing two separate images into a single symbol through substitution, while metonymy operates by association— using a part to represent the whole (such as "crown" for "king") or using contiguous elements (such as "sea" and "boat").

The presence of the father teaches the child that it must assume a predefined social and familial role over which it exercises no control—a role which is defined by the sexual difference between mother and father, the exclusion of the child from the sexual relationship which exists between the mother and the father, and the child's relinquishment of the earlier and intense bonds which existed between itself and the mother's body. This situation of absence, exclusion, and difference is symbolized by the phallus, a universal signifier or metonymic presence which indicates the fundamental lack or absence which lies at the heart of being itself—the manque à être, as Lacan calls it.

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