In his lecture “Of the Network of Signifiers” Lacan provides a more detailed description of the constitutive relationship between signifier and subject. Of course, like most of Lacan’s theoretical points, this description is inseparable from a discussion of the unconscious.
First, Lacan creates an “inaugural” link between the unconscious and the “Unbegriff” (incomprehensible or nonconceptual) which he then reduces to simply “the cut,” claiming that it is also in “a constituent relation to the signifier itself” (43). Importantly, Lacan clarifies in the next paragraph that “all this [cut, unconscious, signifier] happens in the same place,” namely, the subject. In this way, it is is difficult to distinguish Lacan’s subject from the various movements of signification that move through it. Explaining the function of this “cut” in more detail, Lacan writes that it is the thing that gives the unconscious its “pulsative function” and its tendency to “disappear that somehow seems inherent to it.”
Lacan then notes that this propensity of disappearance inherent to the unconscious is connected to Freud’s discovery that the unconscious is not an extension of consciousness but rather its essential refutations. Furthermore, these refutations of the unconscious (although presumably still “structured like a language”) take the form of “thoughts” that are inseparable from their coincidence with the thinking Cartesian subject. Thus “I think” manifests its certainty only insofar as it is inseparable from the essential refutation in the unconscious of “I doubt.”
Moving on to the implications of this insight, Lacan posits (via Freud) that dreams are the site where the subject is “at home.” In highly cartographic language, Lacan emphasises the importance of mapping “the network” in order to locate the existence of the subject: “One goes back and forth over one’s ground, one crosses one’s path, one cross checks it” (45). As an analogy for the spatial characteristics of this site, Lacan describes the way a beam of light is refracted as it moves from one layer to another. He writes that “this is the locus where the affair of the subject of the unconscious is played out” (45). Due to its location “between perception and consciousness” this site is necessarily non-spatial and non-anatomical, refusing the boundaries initiated by Descartes’ cogito.
Importantly, Lacan notes that the relation of the unconscious to the primary processes is “not only a network formed by random and contiguous associations” but must also “have a relation with causality” (46). Fueled by metaphor, the signifier’s diachronic self-movement across the terrain of the unconscious coincides with its synchronic emergence in the “pre-conscious.”With this (somewhat) clearer presentation of the relationship between subject and signifier, I think I can posit an instruction to help our search for an electrate metaphysics. In locating the “thoughts” of the unconscious, focus on those moments of subjective “refraction” since these moments point to the cuts in the unconscious that can guide you through the network of signifiers that constitute your subjectivity.However, this mapping can only be done retrospectively, outside of the unconscious. A quote from the preface seems to elucidate this point further: “when the space of a lapsus [slip of the tongue] no longer carries any meaning (or interpretation) then only is one sure that one is in the unconscious. One knows. But one has only to be aware of the fact to find oneself outside it….There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie.” (vii).