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"The unconscious is structured like a language.” Analyse the importance of the role of language in the construction of subjectivity in the work of Freud or Lacan. Identify examples of how Freud or Lacan draw upon ideas of language and/or literature.

"The unconscious is structured like a language.” Analyse the importance of the role of language in the construction of subjectivity in the work of Freud or Lacan. Identify examples of how Freud or Lacan draw upon ideas of language and/or literature.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Niall Cunniffe. Originally submitted for English with Film at None, with lecturer Anne Mulhall in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Niall Cunniffe. Originally submitted for English with Film at None, with lecturer Anne Mulhall in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
"The unconscious is structured like a language.” Analyse the importance of the role of language inthe construction of subjectivity in the work of Freud or Lacan. Identify examples of how Freud or Lacan draw upon ideas of language and/or literature.This essay explores the methods used by psychoanalyst and structuralist Jacques Lacan to prove hismost famous thesis “the unconscious is structured like a language.” If the unconscious functionssimilarly to a language, as Lacan has claimed, then how may this impact the way we expressourselves verbally and in the written form? This thesis will be examined in conjunction to the work of Sigmund Freud. As a neurologist, Freud's work has been extremely influential on literature, art,film and literary criticism, but rarely is it discussed in relation to language itself. The link betweenthe unconscious and human language arguable exert an influence over our actions and behaviour.This essay is important because it extracts the principle methods used by Lacan in mappinglanguage to the unconscious from writings that are notoriously difficult to read. This process in turncan be observed when studying literature, particularly in the motivations and actions of fictionalcharacters. In this case, Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Purloined Letter,' will be used to validate the thesis.By investigating Lacan's concept of the mirror stage, the essay shows how we are all born into asociety of firmly entrenched signs that must be adhered to. That the child can never attain what itaspires to be shows that subjectivity is governed by the signs in our society. Roman Jakobson'sterms successfully correlate with those of Freud's, proving the thesis. Freud's point about how athought is formed by its contradictory counterpart highlights the similarity between the unconsciousand a language, as it is often argued that words are formed through binary opposition. The flaw inthe Saussurian anglorithm is exposed with Lacan's re-positioning of the signifier over the signified,revealing once again how the subject must adhere to the sign. The examination of 'The PurloinedLetter' proves a rewarding inclusion as Lacan uses another Freudian term to demonstrate how our actions are unconscious and determined by the signs around us. Like the letter determines theunfolding of the story, language can perhaps determine the unfolding of our daily lives.What is most alarming about this study is the revelation that if our unconscious is structured likea language, we are all subjects to a system of signs. Not only has language spoken through thesubject, it has also spoken through our literature. Thus, the thesis, “the unconscious is structuredlike a language” is well-founded and also leaves room for today's thinkers to explore therelationship not only between language and the unconscious, but also literature and theunconscious.
 
It is almost impossible to discuss Jacques Lacan's study of the structure of language in relation tothe unconscious without investigating the theories of the neurologist, Sigmund Freud, in particular his pioneering
The Interpretation of Dreams
(1900). Thus, this essay will focus primarily on Lacan'srevolutionary readings of Freud's theories on subjectivity, while also making reference to theinfluence of Ferdinand Saussure and Roman Jakobson. The essay explores Lacan's use of the psychoanalytical foundations to show how it is language that constructs the subject. Acute attentionwill be paid to Freud's “The Dream Work”, bringing conclusions together in Lacan's study of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Purloined Letter” (1845). This essay will show how Lacan used his mostimportant thesis, “the unconscious is structured like a language” to re-establish Freud's theories in amore linguistic light, proving psychoanalysis to be a major shaping device for the study of languageand literature.Before language constructs the human being into a constituted subject, in regard to socialnorms, Lacan believes the formation for the subject can be traced to the moment when an infantfirst recognizes itself in the reflection of a mirror. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Functionof I,” (1949) is therefore important to this essay because Lacan draws on psychoanalysis. Heutilizes Freud's Topography of the Psyche to show how the fictional, imaginary 'I' must be repressedin order for the subject to make its entry into the symbolic order of language in that society. Toillustrate, Lacan observes, “the I is precipatated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in thedialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, itsfunction as subject” (p1164). The gap then between the autonomous image the child sees and seeks but never truly attains and the reality of its fragmented body “usually manifests itself in dreams”(Lacan, p1167), that is, in the unconscious. It is crucial to note Lacan's argument as it provides thefoundations for this essay; not only does language construct the subject but it's symbolic structure issimilar to the subject's unconscious. Thus, this proves the necessity of Freud's theory for a moregrounded study of the association between language and the unconscious.
 
According to Lacan's “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” within the “unconsciousis the whole structure of language” (p1169). This structure of language is of course the systemof signs, or more precisely, the signifier and the signified, a system in which we are all born into.Thus, Lacan applies the foundations of Saussure and Jakobson's work to Freud's theories on theunconscious. Chiefly, then, it is critical to relate Lacan's method to Freud's earliest work to prove its authenticity. In chapter VI: “The Dream-Work,” Freud talks of how the dream-thoughts, or “latent content,” are like a foreign language to the dreamer and thus, he/she must translate thedream-contents, or “manifest content”, to uncover the meaning (p818). To put into narrative terms,the manifest content is the storyline and the latent content is the subtext. Freud states, “the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression” (p819). Inorder to uncover the thoughts of our unconscious, we interpret the primary processes that functionfundamentally to evade the censorship of the conscious. The primary processes includedisplacement and condensation, which Lacan maps with two of Jakobson's terms to reveal howexactly the unconscious is structured like a language.For the analysis of dreams, Lacan remarks, “Freud intends only to give us the laws of theunconscious in their most general extension,” (p1178). Thus, it is important to apply Jokobson'sterms 'metonymy' and 'metaphor' to “The Dream Work,” to test how accordingly they correlate toFreud's conceptions. Firstly, condensation, as defined by Sean Homer, “designates the processwhereby two or more signs or images in a dream are combined to form a composite image thatis then invested with the meaning of both its constitutive elements” (p43). Condensation, then,forms part of the foreign language the dreamer must unravel by a set of associates. This is preciselythe reason why Lacan applies metonymy, “the use of a term for one thing applied to something elsewith which it is usually associated” (Homer, p43). In the same fashion as one would apply a word toseemingly irrational elements in a dream, like “a house with a boat on its roof,” (Freud, p819) toform a rational meaning, one can choose one word that has a contiguous relation to another, like

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