What does Lacan mean when he says that it is an “illusion that the signifier answers to the function of representing the signified”?
It seems to me that Lacan means that the signifier does not (simply, always) function as the representation of some signified (either an object, or a concept of some sort; a distinction I will not get into here). Rather, the signifier takes on a life of its own, radically independent of any signified. What follows is my attempt to reconstruct at least some of Lacan’s argument.
For Saussure the relation between signified and signifier holds that the function of the signifier is to represent a particular signified. Thus, the word/sound pattern ‘Tree’ represents (by some “mysterious” process) the object or concept ‘Tree’. Lacan however believes that the function of the signifier cannot be determined by the relationship between signifier and signified.
The obvious question is: Why can’t this relation determine the role of the signifier? The answer (for Lacan) is that we can never determine precisely what that relation (between signifier and signified) is. This is a consequence of the fact that no matter what we may think a certain word means, or what we intend to mean when we say a particular word, those thoughts or intentions cannot rigorously determine that words meaning. Any word comes with a host of associations so that no matter what the ‘established’ definition of a sign (which I suppose is equated with its ‘signified’) we can never limit a particular utterance or mark (i.e. a particular signifier) to this definition.
Thus, the notion that a signifier corresponds to any particular signified is shown to be incompatible with a world where any given word comes with a host of associations that are themselves further situated in indeterminable chains of association. He states that:
The linearity that Saussure holds to be constitutive of the chain of discourse, in conformity with its emission by a single voice and with its horizontal position in our writing – if this linearity is necessary, in fact, it is not sufficient. It applies to the chain of discourse only in the direction in which it is orientated in time, being taken as a signifying factor in all languages in which ‘Peter hits Paul’ reverses its time when the terms are inverted. …But one only has to listen to poetry… for a polyphony to be heard, for it to become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of a score 154.
Which is to say that we can’t determine definitively the signified that matches a particular signfier because for all signifiers there are such a large number of relations to other signifiers (which in turn refer us to further and further signifiers) at any one time (like the various notes of an orchestra) that we cannot pin the exact signifier down.
So, to reiterate what the argument seems to be to me: because Saussure’s relationship between signifier and signified requires the stability of those two particles, and that stability can never be provided (in the place of the signified at least), the idea that the signifier is in some way tied to the signified is an ‘illusion’. Thus, the signification provided by the signifier must result from some process other than the relation between signifier and signified.
You caught me noding my homework
All references are to...
, Ecrits: A Selection
translated by Alan Sheridan
(New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 1977).