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At the Beginning Was the Signifier

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy signifier Magritte

At the beginning was the word. An obvious start in the realm of the talking cures would naturally have us look at what is effectively heard during sessions: words. At the time, Freud had already made an all-important distinction between a word, say the word ‘t-a-b-l-e’, and the actual concept of the thing itself – a piece of furniture with a flat top and one or more legs, providing a level surface for eating, writing, or working at, etc. However, Freud did not continue in this direction and try to explore further the implications those linguistic rules bore upon his patients’ experiences. In his study of dreams, whose function he argued is to fulfil the dreamers’ forbidden wishes, and to do so in a more or less distorted fashion so as to allow the sleeper to carry on sleeping undisturbed, Freud saw his clinical work with dreams as mainly one of interpreting – in effect, adding more meaning to what was already being said. Still though, Freud’s experience would show him that it was the words people used which carried an ’emotional load’, and less the meanings of what they actually said. This may come as a surprise, for do we not usually feel that what marks us in someone’s speech is what he or she signifies, what he or she actually means?

The lure towards meaning rather than towards words turned out to be so irresistibly fascinating to writers and thinkers alike as to almost bring the progress of human sciences and psychoanalysis to a grinding halt. Why is that? The fault may, in fact, be partly due to Freud himself. The founder of psychoanalysis had ended his scientific career by concluding that what needed to be reinforced in the work of psychoanalysis was, in its final analysis, the patient’s ego. As seen in my short introduction on the Mirror Stage, the reader may recall that the ego maybe understood to have been born at the time when the baby identifies with the image his mother had somehow mapped onto him, that is, when they both caught their reflections in a mirror. It is understood that this unique moment in the baby’s psychical development – which should be more appropriately called the ‘birth of the subject’ – has, and Freud would never really depart from this idea, an adaptive function. Adopting an image provided much-needed stability to the child whose otherwise fragmented world of incoherence and inconsistency brought him massive anxiety. Although he would of course never have put it in those terms, Freud would finally conclude that is this sense the ego is a good thing. As a matter of fact, it may be possible for today’s readers of Freud to sense a kind of tension in his last writings. The impression is that Freud himself seemed somehow to struggle against his own very conclusions, that is, with regard to which direction the work of analysis should take. The reason is simple: if it is this organised part of the psyche which defends the subject against his own instinctual impulses in the act of repression, then what is at the heart of the problem of neurosis must also be this same ego. In retrospect, his patients had all along been telling him their symptoms stemmed from too strong an ego of theirs, not the lack of having enough of it! But of course, there is hardly anything easier to do than ridicule Freud’s conclusions with today’s eyes.

The nature of the relationship between words and meanings, which the notions of ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’ respectively include but are not restricted to, and the rules they follow in language, would forever and radically re-define the core concept of the Freudian unconscious and thus the whole field of psychoanalysis.

And the reason is this: Ferdinand De Saussure (1857 – 1913), a Swiss linguist, argued that language was essentially composed of basic units called signs. It is on the basis that those signs can be discerned from one another in sound and writing that a thing in the world represents something for someone. Now, given that the newborn baby first gets to hear bits of words, words, phrases and sentences (all signifiers) before understanding what they mean (the signified), it makes sense to posit that the signifier takes precedence over the signified. Put differently, signifiers are there before the signified. Hence, in contrast to Saussure, for Lacan signs will be written as:


capital S (the signifier) over small s (the signified) with a bar separating the two

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Sign

Hopefully, this way of looking at signs will allow us to see how meaning is produced. The act of signification – creating meaning – takes place between at least two signifiers and involves something only humans are capable of doing: crossing the bar in S/s. This ‘crossing of the bar’ relates to the notion of the paternal metaphor (the subject of which will form another short introduction) which constructs meaning via the two linguistic tropes of metonymy and metaphor, as seen in my short introduction on metonymies and metaphors. For instance, if I invite the reader to ponder on the words ‘grass’ and ‘sun’, it would be safe to assume that a multitude of meanings would emerge from those two signifiers. Perhaps one individual will find himself dreaming about those holidays he has been looking forward to for some time; another may be reminiscing about the age-old philosophical debate of nurture versus nature, etc.

The meaning generated by and in between signifiers is arbitrary, and in this sense may be regarded as being completely unreliable objectively. In fact, meanings are not random; they are motivated by social conventions. Indeed, if it is agreed that a bunch of flowers will be called “flowers” in the English language, it will have been decided otherwise in another society, such as being called “fleurs” in French. Natural language is inherently opaque and ambiguous. The picture below may be a fair depiction of how signified and signifiers interact with each other in language – the signifiers (represented by A) floats above a sea of meanings (represented by B) which slides underneath it and stabilised or fixed to signifiers only by those vertical lines (fig 1), otherwise named Points-de-capitons (fig 2).

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy SlidingEnglish French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Point de Capiton


It is in this very debate between meanings and signifiers that lies the fundamental distinction between the work of psychoanalysis on the one hand, and psychotherapy and counselling on the other. The last two clinical approach focus on what the patient means – the signified – whilst (Lacanian) psychoanalysis is concerned mostly with what was there from the first for the newborn: in its final analysis a material element which means nothing, yet is indestructible and taking its value only from its difference with the next signifier, representing the subject only in reference to another signifier.

See lecture here

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