Lacan claims that “the unconscious is structured like a language” relations to his notions of the subject and counting (20). Besides the fact that this is one of the phrases for which Lacan is most well known, it also resonates with me at a formal level simply due to its axiomatic brevity. It seems to demand attention, especially considering that Lacan in in the process of explaining “the unconscious,” one of his four fundamental concepts.
First, and as Lacan is quick to note, the phrase is indebted to the structuralism of Claude Levi Strauss, from whom Lacan derives his notion of the “relations that have already been determined” before the establishment of societal or human relations. Lacan writes that these structures “are taken from whatever nature may offer as supports, supports that are arranged in themes of opposition. Nature provides-I must use the word-signifiers, and these signifiers organize human relations in a creative way, providing them with structures and shaping them” (20). Lacan then continues by noting that the most significant aspect of this pre-structuring is how it attunes psychoanalysis to the way in which subject formation occurs at “the level at which there is counting, things are counted, and in this counting he who counts is already included” (20).
Looking again at the way that Lacan structures his argument formally (“I must use the word”), it seems that he wants us to pay attention to the importance of the term “signifiers” in his structuralist account of the unconscious. With this in mind, it seems that Lacan’s phrase, “the unconscious is structured like a language,” might be interpreted as follows: the material signifiers through which meaning arises in language is analogous to the material signifiers through which the unconscious arises in the subject. In addition, these “material signifiers” in the unconscious come from “nature” and thus are not necessarily limited to the signifiers that constitute a language.
It also seems important that Lacan describes these signifiers as coming together “in a creative way,” implying that the unconscious structure which results does not function on a logic that is confined to the physical or “natural” limitations from which its signifiers arose. The connections among the signifiers in the unconscious are akin to the connections we made in the felt section of our mystories.
One instruction to be gleaned from this analysis might be to expand our understanding of language beyond its phonemic emphasis in literacy. We might also consider returning to semiotic/structuralist theory such as Levi-Strauss, Greimas, and Barthes as we attempt to represent signifer relations in our electrate metaphysics. How does the proliferation of image, video, audio, and text initiate a new semiotics?