In his Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation, Jacques Lacan briefly states that “a signifier does not concern a third thing that it supposedly represents but concerns another signifier which it is not.”
This indicates to me that Lacan's theory of desire as what emerges in the gap between the subject and their symbolization in language relies heavily on Saussure’s central semiotic principles:
- A sign is the arbitrary coupling of a concept and sound-image
- The meaning of the sound-image is produced by its differentiation from other sound-images within the same system
- Language operates diachronically
At the beginning of his seminar, Lacan demonstrates for his students the connection between the subject’s entanglement in language and the emergence of desire. However, before he can do so, he must first schematize the subject in language. He begins laying the groundwork for his famous three-tiered “graph of desire” by contrasting his view of signifiers with a “three terms” theory of signs in which a (1) a hearer receives (2) a sign which represents (3) an object (either physical or mental). Crucially, Saussure also takes this same “three terms” theory of signs as his foil when he attempts to define a linguistic sign as that which unites a concept and a sound-image, making a sign a composite of a signified (concept) and a signifier (sound-image).
Saussure uses the term “sound-image” to capture how the act of speaking also includes hearing ourselves speak, thus inextricably uniting the act of speaking the word with the sensation it creates in our consciousness. For instance, we can speak to ourselves inside our mind by simply recalling the sense experience of hearing but without performing the corresponding act of speaking. The mind couples the sound and sense-impression to form Saussure’s “sound-image,” such that if we hear the sound we experience the corresponding sense impression, and we recall the sense impression to simulate the sound in our head.
According to Saussure’s first semiotic principle, signs create an arbitrary relation between a sound-image and a concept. There is no necessity or ultimate meaning to the connection between the signified and signifier beyond the fact that they simply are connected. The concept of ‘tree’ does not need to be expressed with the sound-image ‘tree,’ and we know this because other languages exist which couple a different sound-image with the concept ‘tree.’ None of these languages is more “right” than the others -- they simply function.
Having asserted and defended the arbitrary nature of the relation between the concept and the sound-image, Saussure proceeds to sketch the basic operation of language as the arbitrary coupling of thoughts and sounds. The practice of meditation demonstrates that one can experience the flow of consciousness as a senseless and formless flux, and that the cacophony of the world’s sound can similarly be reduced to unstructured pure sensation. While each of these flows is meaningless in themselves, when corresponding units of each are arbitrarily coupled to form linguistic signs, meaning happens.
For Saussure, language does not “express ideas” (because ideas do not exist prior to language), but rather differentiates thoughts by coupling zones of thought with zones of sound. A thought is differentiated from other adjacent thoughts (made distinct) through association with a region of sound which itself is made distinct by differing from other adjacent sound regions. Language thus plays a purely delimiting function, not a referential one.
Saussure says, “Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms [Added emphasis mine]." Saussure’s work demonstrates the remarkable fact that the ordered confluence of two essentially meaningless processes (thought and sound) has the power to create a third term which can be meaningful (a symbol).
Lacan’s theory of subjectivity and the consequent emergence of desire in language reads Saussure’s first semiotic principle and his theory of language as “pure differences” by employing Saussure’s second principle in a phenomenological analysis of the diachronic experience of speech.
In his second principle of semiotics, Saussure notes how language functions in succession, and thus “forms a chain.” Lacan’s” graph of desire” plays on the diachronicity of the meaning chain by locating the subject’s first intimations of “the Other” in the subject’s experience of meaning as unfolding in a successive chain of signifiers.
In the act of speaking, Lacan notes, the meaning of the words in the sentence do not become clear until crucial suture points in the sentence arrive (the end of the sentence, grammatical markings, proper nouns, etc…), and thus the subject always experiences a gap between the moment of enunciation (when the words are spoken) and the moment when meaning takes place (understanding happens). Within this duration between the speaking and the communicating, the subject becomes conscious of their helpless reliance on the Other to provide the words they need to arrive at the suture point which will cause meaning to successfully take place.
Lacan follows Saussure in seeing the coupling of the signifier and the signified in any particular sign as pure contingency, but observes that since the fact of their being coupled in a particular way in a particular instance was not the subject’s choice, the subject nonetheless experiences these contingent symbols as necessary. Language thus becomes the “discourse of the Other,” a system of signifiers which the subject must be given by the Other in order to employ, but for which has an underlying logic which remains intractably opaque. The subject must adopt language as a structural play of signifiers which they did not create, they did not choose, and which is fundamentally indifferent to them.
Thus, the human child finds themselves in the terrifying position of needing to employ the discourse of the Other in order to procure the satisfaction of their most basic bodily needs. At the moment of the enunciation then, the subject possesses a need which can only be satisfied by engaging in the stringing together of a chain of signifiers which the Other provides, and until the moment that linguistic closure takes place, it remains ultimately within the Other’s power as to whether the subject will be able to successfully communicate and thereby satisfy their needs. Lacan theorizes that the desperation the child experiences in this gap between experiencing need and registering that need in the symbolic realm of language causes desire to emerge as a question directed to the Other who can satisfy this need -- “What do you want from me?”
I have endeavored here only to show how Saussure’s theory of semiotics in his Course in General Linguistics contains the seeds of Lacan’s view of subjectivity and desire. I was struck with how both theorists particularly prioritize investigating the linguistic sign within its phenomenological context as speech, and how Lacan extends Saussure’s insights precisely through this exploration of the experience of speaking language. Lacan observes that although language is the arbitrary union of two sense-less flows, the subject always experiences these arbitrary couplings as necessary and thus as given by an Other. He then positions this experience of “absurdity as necessity” within its context in duration, thereby pinpointing the emergence of desire in this gap of helplessness which the subject experiences. Lacan’s theory points us to a terrifying insight -- the subject’s bellowing of “what do you want from me?” in desire inquires after an absurdity, and thus has no possible answer at all.
P.S. – I've posted a free pdf copy of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics which you can download at this link, if you'd like to do some further reading.