Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric”

Form and Content

The main argument of de Man’s seminal essay can be stated as follows: The grounds of literary meaning (and by extension all meaning) must be located in rhetoric rather than in any of the other possible dimensions (form, content, reference, grammar, logic etc.). But a rhetorical reading cannot guarantee authority over interpretations. Therefore there is no authority that can guarantee a reading. This doesn’t license us to read a text just anyway we want to. Rather it commits us to readings that take full account of the possibilities and limits of reading (and writing) generally. One name for these possibilities and limits might be deconstruction.

de Man begins by noting a decline in what he calls “formalist and intrinsic criticism.” And he accounts for this by observing an increasing interest in reference amongst literary critics. What is at stake? By “formalist and intrinsic criticism” he designates a wide range of practices that we find dominating literary criticism throughout the middle of the twentieth century from the thirties and forties into the sixties. Notice that his article is written in 1973. So what distinguishes these practices? The word formalism implies a rather conventional but nonetheless very powerful distinction (because it appeals to common sense) between form and content. Those of us who have read our Ferdinand de Saussure know the distinction in terms of the difference between signifier (form) and signified (content). How do you make the form your object? To study the form of a work you study how it gives rise to its meaning. Imagine we meet each other at breakfast and take turns at giving an account of the party we all attended the night before. We will have a lot of different accounts of one event, a lot of forms for only one content. In the same way anyone could have written a poem about school children dancing but only W. B. Yeats could have written “Among School Children.” The poem is unique not because of its content—what it is about—but because of its form. The “New Criticism” of the thirties and forties established certain techniques of close reading, especially in the work of its figurehead I. A. Richards, whose Principles of Literary Criticism is now a modern classic.

Now Richards would perhaps have been surprised to hear his idea of form described in terms of the metaphor of inside and outside. How does the metaphor work? Imagine a nut. A nut has a shell that, once removed, yields a nutritious centre. This is what de Man means by the following statement: “when form is considered to be the external trappings of literary meaning or content, it seems superficial and expendable.” The formalists, on the other hand, taught that it is the shell, rather than its content, that is important in literature. So when de Man observes that the trend in literary criticism has moved from form to reference, what interests him is the underlying metaphor that governs how we have up until now always—without thinking about it too much—imagined meaning to come about. That is, before we interpret a text we have already accepted an interpretation—based upon a metaphor—of what interpretation is. It is this unwitting interpretation of interpretation that interests de Man. He obviously has less concern about whether formalism, structuralism, historicism or author criticism is right or wrong. Rather he is more interested in the unwitting assumptions that these approaches all share, i.e., the metaphor of inside and outside. There is more at stake in this than you might have at first realized. Think about it: most of us (but not all) will have had some experience in what we call close reading. First year English students at NUS as well as some school students will already have learned to do what we call practical criticism (after I. A. Richards and his school). This means that we read the texts according to literary forms like figures (metaphors, similes, symbols), narrative structures (first or third person narrators, point of view, character, plot, action, etc.), formal aspects of genre (meter, rhythm and rhyme) and themes (non-referential but thematic constants like death, love, the struggle of good and evil, etc.). Here form is related to meaning “intrinsically” and no reference to the context of an outside world is necessary. One might have asked, justifiably: “what is the purpose of it?” Arguments about how the ability to evaluate a literary text is good for you, even at their most ingenious, ultimately fail to satisfy (and there have been many seemingly persuasive answers of this kind). Undoubtedly this kind of knowledge counts as a skill and those of us who can do it derive a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from it, but the question still remains—what good does it do? How does it apply, if at all, beyond literature?

Perhaps then it would follow that criticism should start looking outside the text to the extra-textual world of real references. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a parodic critique of the communist revolution (and by association, all such revolutions). Shakespeare’s King Lear is a not so subtle warning to King James (it was first played to him and his small court) not to lose his throne. What we have come to understand as historicism develops as a way of extending the reach of our literary knowledge so that we can talk about its relation to historical events and processes. This is what we might call extrinsic criticism. The text now has its meaning located outside itself. What fundamentally we are left with is a defining distinction—that is not itself fully explicable—between fiction or, more generally, rhetoric and reality. An example of what often happens in literary criticism would bear this out. A text by an Asian-American author like Russell Leong features characters who are migrant Chinese in the USA very often reflecting on and getting into situations of the kind Asian-Americans get into. You might then want to argue that 1) the text in some sense translates the experience of the author; and 2) the text can be read as an engagement with actual situations that Asian-Americans find themselves in and, by extension, as a critique of ideological and historical conditions that help to determine those situations.

So the rejection of “pure” formalism is not a rejection after all but a repetition that takes the form of a reversal: “The polarities of inside and outside have been reversed, but they are still the same polarities that are at play: internal meaning has become outside reference, and the outer form has become the intrinsic structure.” The text is regarded either as something that has its meaning inherent in it (formalism) with no need to refer outwards to contexts or other texts, or it has its meaning outside itself, in the reference to author, period, history, social relation, reader or culture (etc.). What all these approaches to texts share is the unwitting assumption that meaning can be understood on the model of inside and outside, whether the content is outside and the form inside or the form outside and the content inside.

At this stage in the article de Man provides a very important clue as to his approach. He says he wants to avoid using the terms of the old metaphor (now we know that’s what it is) and instead relocate the problem of literary meaning by examining a couple of terms that, as he says, are “less likely to enter into chiasmic reversals.” Chiasmus is a rhetorical term (from the Greek: Chiasmus, “a diagonal arrangement”) meaning the repetition of ideas in inverted order. Shakespeare’s got a good one:

But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strong loves. (Othello 3.3)

So instead of this endless repetition of a powerful yet clearly awkward notion of interpretation and meaning, de Man gets his alternative terms “pragmatically from the observation of developments and debates in recent critical methodology.” What’s he saying? He will get his new explanation of reading from reading. Notice that there is no attempt offered to formulate yet another original theory. The “new” terms are “as old as the hills” and they are to be derived from current critical theory texts.

Semiology, Grammar and Rhetoric

He’s right of course to observe that his alternative terminology is “as old as the hills.” What should be instructive is that it allows considerable rigor in his textual and theoretical analysis. Notice, again, that he is not proposing a new theory. He is analyzing a simultaneously theoretical and practical situation as he finds it. It is simultaneously theoretical and practical because he refuses to read the theory as if it was a simple meta-language (a vocabulary to be used for discussing language). He reads it as if it too needs reading. This is how he was able to tease out the metaphor that lies unheeded at the grounds of most notions of meaning and interpretation. And he deals with the problems of reading by reading texts that deal with the problems of reading (but which text doesn’t?).

We don’t, I hope, have to spend too much time on the question of semiology. Semiology establishes some basic tenets: the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, the system of differences that gives the sign its value, and the conventional codes that operate as prompts for signification, sometimes making it seem rather culture bound. (What is it that frees language from cultural specificity? The arbitrariness of the sign and its repeatability: ah, bold and italics, must be important). Remember this: a sign does not simply refer to its referent (on the model of re-presentation). A sign is coded according to its system and that’s how it comes to have its particular meanings. Notice that in passing de Man observes that French writers (poets and novelists) seem always to have been aware of this, while only since structuralism have French critics twigged to it: a first definitive instance of the affirmation of the explanatory power of literature itself.

Now, grammar. After de Saussure, whose structural linguistics aims to derive general laws of language, the grammatical laws (which are as structural as anything) tended to become a rather privileged object of structuralist analysis. A simple grammatical structure (sentence: noun phrase/verb phrase/noun phrase) can generate increasingly complex structures both at the level of the sentence and beyond to the paragraph, the chapter, the book even. At the level of the sentence alone some complexity is possible. See the first sentence from the paragraph of Proust (Wolfreys 336), which has four lines of phrases all generated from the model: noun phrase/verb phrase/noun phrase.

In literary structuralism, especially in France, the analysis of deep grammatical structures went hand in hand with the analysis of rhetorical tropes (figures of discourse). What this means is that the two axes of language, the syntagmatic (at the level of the generated sentence) and the paradigmatic (the axis of substitutions) can be read as operating together in a discourse. We can thus explain what de Man means by “assimilations of rhetorical transformations or combinations to syntactical, grammatical patterns” with reference to the coexistence in structuralist theory of patterns of both metonymy (which is syntagmatic) and metaphor (which is paradigmatic). The syntagmatic axis is composed of the marks (words to you and I) that we find (or put) together in a given text:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In this example, which I’ve stolen from de Man, all the elements that we find in the four lines are to be regarded as belonging together only syntagmatically—they are found together because that’s where they’ve been put. When we think about what they mean, then we inevitably turn to the paradigmatic axis, which we cannot see because it belongs to the system (and not to the parole). We cannot see it, that is, because it is the axis of possible substitutions (imagine I re-write Yeats’s verse: “O banana tree, little-rooted flourisher,” and you can see what kinds of substitutions are possible). However to understand metaphor now no longer as just a kind of substitution but more as a kind of combination we find that a possible substitution is given in the third and fourth lines, where the question about the dancing body seems to be a kind of repetition of the question about the tree, thus making the dancer in some metaphorical sense equivalent to the tree. Here, then, we have a metaphorical substitution on a metonymic axis. de Man’s point is that we might in this way have chosen to include the metaphor within (and thus subordinate to) the grammatical, linear unfolding without acknowledging that there may be tensions between the two modes of signification in the discourse itself. That is, the assimilation operates as a kind of smoothing over device to help us finish off the interpretation.

Remember: de Man deals with the problems of reading by reading texts that deal with the problems of reading. Perhaps its not that obvious to us that “Among School Children” is a text about reading—but does it matter? de Man can read it as if it was and certainly, then, it would seem to be.

So what is at stake? The difference between metaphorical substitutions and metonymic combinations (rhetoric and grammar) can be seen as a kind of repetition of a deeper and older opposition: between rhetoric and logic. But (a big, big but) metonymy is not a grammatical category. It is no less figurative than metaphor. The predicative structure of a sentence (noun/verb/phrase) cannot guarantee its meaning—as the example of Archie Bunker’s rhetorical question shows. In that case, as de Man says, “the same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning.” The question, “what’s the difference?” actually means “there’s no difference.” Now the point—as de Man points out in the next paragraph—is this: the only way out of the confusion engendered by this paradox is through an intention that cannot be reduced to the grammar of the statement. What Archie Bunker means by the question is not contained by the question’s grammar. And nor is it contained by any other verifiable aspect of the statement. This is the meaning of rhetoric. When the meaning of a statement cannot be established through an analysis of its grammar we call it rhetorical. So when de Man says that, “rhetoric radically suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration,” he is drawing attention to the fact that meaning (intentions people have when they make statements or when they read statements) cannot not be based on firm logical grounds. Rhetoric is abyssal and aberrant. You can hope to be understood but you cannot guarantee it. Once we recognize that grammar is subordinate to rhetoric we are in the realm of interpretive decisions. The structuralist dream of a fully analyzable language is now lost. But there’s more at stake than that. The logical grounds of interpretation have gone entirely—especially when we deal with the literary text, which is “above the norm” in rhetorical meaning. Both logic and grammar are questionable when we read a literary text. Grammar assumes a simple logical one-to-one relationship between language unit (word, sentence, etc.) and meaning. Rhetoric contests that assumption. Logic postulates the possibility of universal truth (a concept that independently of its objects remains unchangeable, eternal and unaffected by rhetoric). We know from de Saussure that such a concept has no place in a system like the language system, which provides meaning only through the values that the differences between signifiers allow. In other words, when we make meaningful statements we do so by acting on the combined resources of difference and rhetorical substitution. This gives us considerable freedom but at a cost—we can no longer hope to control or to limit the structures of linguistic meaning and the multiple possibilities of confusion that always threaten. But please pay attention to the implications of this last point. If as readers of literature we can no longer guarantee a fully controllable text, then so long as we can show where these limitations reside—as de Man has done with his examples—we have won considerable interpretive freedom for our rhetorical readings.

Metaphor and Metonymy

It remains for me to say a few words about de Man’s reading of Proust. He has chosen the example for a simple reason: it thematizes reading (“the most striking aspect of this passage is the juxtaposition of figural and meta-figural language”). The role of the meta here is very, very, important. When some faculty (language, consciousness, experience, thought) takes itself as its own topic or object we can identify a self-reflexive or auto-referential role. Such a role always exhibits—in the form of paradox or contradiction—irrevocable limits to logical, formal or empirical analysis. Ask me about this—there are many examples of the self-reflexive paradox and each of them can be revealing in different ways. Now, in the case we have before us, the paradox reveals itself in two different ways. First we have a meta-figurative discourse and, second, we have a meta-reader-ly discourse, which thematizes reading.

First we have a passage of fiction (and figurative discourse), which thematizes the role of figurative discourse. This is the text in its two dimensions overlapping. The two dimensions of a text are as follows: it is composed first of what we might call its statement. This is the level of content (whether considered extrinsic or intrinsic). It is what the text is about. But all texts are composed of a second dimension, that of their enunciation, the writing or speaking (the “how”) of the text. In traditional terms this would be its form. But in de Man’s “new” terminology form would not do, because the word suggests empirical and analyzable elements, and, as we’ve, seen this would miss the rhetorical aspects of meaning and intention. Here instead of form we can talk about performance. In this way we can actually make sense of the difference between Archie Bunker’s intention and his wife’s interpretation. The subject of the statement changes when the subject of its enunciation changes. The “image repertoire” that Roland Barthes writes about occurs at the level of enunciation. When you read a text, the subject of (its) enunciation is you. So reading is just as much a kind of performance as writing, which is why de Man maintains that the difference between literature and criticism is delusive. (Student: “Are we doing criticism or literature?” Teacher: “What’s the difference?”).

The second way that a paradox of self-reflexivity is revealed is in the fact that a reader (Paul de Man) is reading a text in terms of the way it thematizes the problems of reading. In this way de Man can read the text as rigorously as possible in terms of what the text itself—as a rhetorical entity—makes possible, even necessary. In other words the text makes a claim (at the level of its statement) on behalf of the value of presence, according to which the most essential figurative tropes are metaphorical as opposed to metonymical. But in the performance the text reveals a praxis (the Greek word for action or practice in the sense of something that one habitually does)—i.e., it achieves its effects—through metonymic combinations, which ground the metaphorical substitutions. The metaphorical substitutions of the terms presence, essence, action, truth and beauty are grounded in a metonymic chain (i.e., they are brought together by proximal and thus accidental association). What this does is to lessen—at the very least—the authority of the rhetorical mode. But it doesn’t replace that authority with a new one. Rather it opens up the space of reading as something that cannot be closed, that remains open, undetermined and exposed to chances of its future that no authority could determine or calculate in advance. It does not do this after the fact but as the very possibility of its own mode of existence (as a rhetorical entity). This is what de Man means when he points out that Proust’s text cannot simply be reduced to the mystical assertion of the superiority of metaphor over metonymy. He writes:

The reading is not “our” reading, since it uses only the linguistic elements provided by the text itself; the distinction between the author and the reader is one of the false distinctions that the reading makes evident. The deconstruction is not something we have added to the text but it constituted it in the first place. A literary text simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode, and by reading the text as we did we were only trying to come closer to being as rigorous a reader as the author had to be in order to write the sentence in the first place. (339).

Please pay special attention to the meaning of the word deconstruction in this passage. It doesn’t matter what you want to say about writing because when you write the conditions and possibilities of writing alone determine the limits and possibilities of your statement. And those conditions and possibilities are revealed when anybody writes about writing or reads a text in terms of the way it thematizes reading. You could always make counter-factual claims about it but the writing itself would in each case reveal the lie. So deconstruction is the name that de Man gives for the possibilities and limits of rhetoric (texts, statements and communicative events of all kinds).

Where does it leave us? After watching the new Spielberg production, AI, I have a fresh example. Here is a cinema production that thematizes the relationships between cinema and its audiences. In this sense it is a very clever film indeed as it is able to include a narrative about narratives (telling stories); the role of mass culture for individuals (the claims in the film are that it is fundamentally benign); the role of the spectator in making the illusion “real”; the persistence and permanence of cinema as a cultural product; (etc., etc.,). It takes a spectator (like me), who is looking for the figure of the spectator in the film, to begin to see what is going on and, thus, to construct a critique—which I will leave in absentia here but we will come back to it anon.


Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric” was first published in Diacritics, 3:3 (Fall 1973) 27-23. You will also find it in Julian Wolfreys, ed. Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.


Cogito Ergo Sum

It is convenient to use Descartes as a reference point because so much of what is distinctively modern is found with him. His statement cogito ergo sum--“I am thinking therefore I am”--was from early in his writings an example of one of the few most basic, “clear and distinct,” ideas a philosopher could have. The statement asserts the certainty of my existence as a consequence of the mere fact that I am thinking. So long as I can be sure that I am thinking I am sure that I exist. A lot hangs, then, on this “I am thinking.” Descartes’ most sustained and widely read demonstration of this is to be found in the first two of his Meditations, which are recommendable in their entirety. What comes to be known (admittedly rather absurdly) as The Cogito (the “I am thinking”) concerns the faculty of human judgment. What he is concerned to do in The Meditations is to prove that judgment in his sense is free of deception. If he succeeds, of course, then there’s a nice ground for human knowledge indeed. Clearly, he is attempting a fresh reading of the already traditional search for a ground for truth. It is this sense of “fresh reading” that is crucial here. The problems of philosophy, charted in the preceding sections, are only clouded further by slavish adherence to traditional authorities like Plato and especially Aristotle. The faculty of judgment ought to be free from all forms of deception, like stories and myths, certainly, but all old previous thinking, the whole cultural heritage, including the hazardous wastes of rhetoric. Furthermore, human imagination and, worst of all, the fallible evidence of the senses each in its own way serves to compromise the clarity and distinctness of proper thinking. Thus a mixture of geometry and philosophy produces what we now know as Cartesian method. Cartesian doubt is one way of characterizing this and, to be fair, Descartes certainly encourages such labels because his most influential book, The Meditations, is built upon a cunning narrative, he calls it “a fable of the mind,” in which the philosopher takes his addressees through several stages of doubting. It is advisable not to play down the literary aspects of his writing, for this will lead the casual reader into the error of taking his demonstrations, which are almost explicitly theatrical acts, as a kind of authoritative knowledge. For instance when he complains of the multiplicity of conflicting philosophical authorities, none of which contribute a convincing account of the grounds and first principles of knowledge, we may be forgiven for assuming that Descartes is announcing a historically based crisis, the breaking down of epistemological foundations. He would thus represent, as has been argued, a shift from medieval thought to a peculiarly modern one. However this would fail to do justice to the argument as we find it. Descartes’ point is not much altered from Plato’s. The thinker must each time start from scratch in order to be sure of his or her knowledge. The real question is to what extent is this escape from the multiplicity of sensuous and rhetorical distractions ever possible? The demonstrations are, at the very least, suggestive of the necessity for the kind of theatrical cunning that Descartes himself employs to get what he calls his “Archimedes’ point” across.

Having first of all doubted the words of the authorities (which is always easy to do--why should we believe Aristotle or Plato when even they often contradict each other?) he moves on to the evidence of his senses. Why should I believe that what I experience--what I see, hear, touch, feel or taste--is real, or even a true representation of the object world to which I get this sensuous access? The question is, now, can I successfully doubt that my experience is real? Descartes uses a number of examples. Sometimes my dreams seem to be as real as when I am awake. I cannot, therefore, be certain that I am not dreaming. There are some madmen who think they are made of glass or that they are kings when they are really just poor beggars. Of the latter Descartes, rather controversially, says, “but these people are mad and it would be extravagant if I followed their example.” Instead he follows a different kind of extravagance. If I hypothesise a demon, which systematically tricks me into believing that all my experience is real when in fact it bears no relation to actuality, how can I be sure of anything at all? Added together, the doubting and the hypothesizing prove one thing for certain (while all else remains in doubt), that is, that I am doubting and that I am hypothesizing. The invention of the evil demon may of course be an invention by the evil demon too, but the fact that I can doubt even this cannot be doubted. Therefore my capacity to throw all aspects of my experience into doubt, except that fact of doubting itself, ought to be able to serve as a ground for certain knowledge. It is called cogito, “I am thinking.” Notice that when I adopt Descartes’ I, I do not say, for instance, “Descartes thinks therefore he is.” That would simply not work. It only works for what he calls “this ‘I.’” The I is a philosophical subject that remains constant in the statement, whoever occupies that place. So the autobiographical aspects of Descartes’ Meditations are purely fictional in so far as any I ought to be able to occupy that slot in the demonstration. Descartes calls his method analytic as opposed to synthetic. Traditionally the synthetic method would set out a theorem and follow it with a series of proofs. What Descartes is interested in here is putting the addressee into the position of the philosopher going through his hypotheses and doubts.

Along the way, Descartes gives a couple of crucial demonstrations of what this “thinking,” the Cartesian judgment, involves. At a certain point in the demonstration Descartes says, “when I look out of the window I say that I see men passing by.” He then points out that this is an error caused by habitual ways of speaking. These passers-by might be automata clothed in robes with hats and masks (more Cartesian extravagance). Rather, says Descartes, “ I judge what I see to be men.” Hence the faculty of judgment gives sense to what is visible and, once again, a version of the difference between the transcendental (judgment) and the empirical (the visible) comes to organize the argument. And, once again, the rhetorical field is the frontier between the two.


The problem raised by frontiers (both as distinguishing marks and as loci of passage) is that they reveal the multiplicity of ways in which persons and communities interact with those from whom they are or wish to be distinguished. This multiplicity is often regarded as a bad infinite because not only does it describe the multiple conditions of similarity and difference that define association per se, but also these frontiers can be marked only with reference to the particularities of a given and specific community. The bad infinite is thus finitude itself, history and historical specificity, and as such it subjects us to all the distressing vagaries of contingency and chance. In this respect the Cartesian judgement remains tied to the metaphysical tradition in which it emerged first of all as a concept.
The Cartesian Subject is not a Subject

As we have seen, Descartes’ texts reveal a desire for reasonably certain grounds amongst irreducible cultural and philosophical difference. Furthermore, Descartes’ subject, now canonically referred to as the Cogito, is often today described as being in crisis.

The Subject in Crisis

This is probably most marked in work following Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan who both demonstrate a tendency to see Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis as having decentred a subject commonly described as “Cartesian.” In Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits we read: “the formation of the I as we experience it in psychoanalysis ... leads us to oppose any philosophy directly issuing from the Cogito.” (1). And in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan uses Descartes to assert that while the subject of psychoanalysis is of Cartesian origin, it emerges only in the wake of the signifier (47).

This identity is often equated with the social identity of the modern subject—an identity before anything else who is capable of making free and rational decisions. For this reason Descartes is a good place to go in order to discover the conditions out of which such an identity so powerfully emerges. What we learn is surprising, because if we consider the sense of “social or cultural identity,” we find that the so-called Cartesian subject is actually not really a subject at all.

In “Rule Twelve” of the Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (c.1628) Descartes describes how knowledge of the outside world passes through five relatively discrete operations or events of perception, culminating in the reasonable judgements and understanding proper to the operation of “native intelligence” or “mind.” I want to make special reference to Descartes’ qualification here, which is typical, that he “lacks the space to include all the points which have to be set out before the truth about these matters can be made clear to everyone” (CSM I 40). It would be a mistake to regard this as a passing comment, contingent on the purpose of the work in hand. Descartes’ method is predicated on the desire for a certainty that is always “embarrassed” by the so called “bad” infinite: lack of time and space, prematurity of reason, infinite regression in solving complex propositions, infinite computation with respect to probabilities, etc. Indeed, in The Meditations the same problem emerges as reason for not assenting to the standard interpretation of Man as “rational animal.” He writes “from one single question, we would fall unwittingly into an infinite number of others, more difficult and awkward than the first, and I would not want to waste the little time and leisure remaining to me by using it to unravel subtleties of this kind” (A II 427, CSM II 14). As a consistent response to this problem Descartes’ method, learned not only from geometry but from the allegorical arts as well, involves setting out “as briefly as possible ... the most useful way of conceiving everything within us which contributes to our knowledge of things” (CSM I 40). The method of explanation, which as such implicates judgement with the ability to successfully communicate the judgement itself, allows the reader to follow a chain of “suppositions” that otherwise “detract not a jot from the truth of things,” a chain exorbitant to the truth that nonetheless makes “everything much clearer” (CSM I 40). This kind of abstraction, based in part on the abstractions of algebraic geometry, subordinates logic to figuration.

In demonstrating the first phase he asks us to conceive the process of passive corporeal sense perception as one in which senses are “impressed” by data, “in the same way in which wax takes on an impression from a seal” (CSM I 40). In this way Descartes can generalise all sense perception under the term shape (“nothing is more readily perceivable by the senses”), including colour, which is his example here. He writes: “we simply make an abstraction, setting aside every feature of colour apart from its possessing the character of shape, and conceive of the difference between white, blue, and red, etc. as being like the difference between the following figures or similar ones” (CSM I 41). His diagrams show three figures as follows: one is constructed of five equidistant lines of equal length drawn vertically; the second is a square divided into sixteen; the third is a larger version of that square but with diagonal lines bisecting each of the sixteen internal squares. The given figures are entirely arbitrary, so colour is to be understood through the abstract principle of differentiation per se. The generalisation is therefore regarded as being sufficient owing to the special quality this time of a good infinite. He writes: “The same can be said about everything perceivable by the senses, since it is certain that the infinite multiplicity of figures is sufficient for the expression of all the differences in perceptible things” (CSM I 41). And, because infinity can be grasped neither by the senses nor by the imagination, we know that the intellect will never run out of means (figures) for representing its objects in abstraction. Again, in The Meditations, Descartes asks rhetorically:

Is it not that I imagine that this wax, being round, is capable of becoming square, and of passing from a square to a triangular figure? No indeed, it is not that, for I conceive of it as capable of undergoing an infinity of similar changes, and as I could not embrace this infinity by my imagination, consequently this conception I have of the wax is not the product of the faculty of imagination. (105)

So the frontier between the object world and the transcendental judgement actually constitutes the meeting point of two types of infinity. The first is the multiplicity of worldly forms and the second is the ability of human judgement to find potentially infinite substitutions for representing them. Descartes’ philosopher is thus the master of a universe of signs, which each time need the perpetually creative activity of interpreting judgement.

The mind is thus simply the name for an exorbitance, the excess that infinity suggests, which lies between the subject and the outside world. The difference between good and bad infinity thus characterises the frontier itself as an absolutely necessary condition of representation and, as we would see if we took a sufficiently complex range of the colour spectrum and represented each difference with a graphic mark, writing. This just is the Cogito. Writing in this sense in fact defines Descartes’ universe not only as semiotic but also as constituted essentially by a relation to “the other” as potentially infinite and randomly determined addressee.
Authority and Enlightenment

Descartes’ writing abounds with masks, guises, performances and representations of all kinds, each acting as mediation for the otherwise absent light of reason itself. More than a hint is given here as to Descartes’ participation as a social subject. “Actors,” he writes in his very early Praeambula (c.1619), “taught not to let any embarrassment show on their faces, put on a mask. I will do the same. So far, I have been a spectator in this theatre which is the world, but now I am about to mount the stage, and I come forward masked” (CSM I 2). There is no proper scholarly context for this passage although it does bear traces of the Renaissance and Baroque traditions that surface from time to time in Descartes’ texts. But this “I” we will gradually come to think of as the Cogito itself, as “this ‘I’” in The Meditations (CSM II 17); and Discourse on Method, Descartes’ “autobiography,” is in fact a biography or as he calls it “a fable” of reason (CSM I 112), in which reason adopts the role of the good citizen, pretends to accept the most conservative, normative and dominant of historically and nationally established principles for a “provisional moral code” in order to demolish them and rebuild them on firmer grounds (CSM I 122-131). On this note what will come to be known as the call of Enlightenment is sounded.

The status of the Discourse itself is important. On the one hand it demonstrates the way that a single philosopher arrives at a level of certainty from which to proceed in developing a well founded knowledge. The demonstration is, as Descartes is at pains to point out, at best a history but perhaps better understood as a fable, like the pictorial representations of Renaissance art:

I shall be glad to reveal in this discourse what paths I have followed, and to represent my life in it as if it were a picture ... but I am presenting this work only as a history or, if you like, a fable in which, among certain examples worthy of imitation, you will perhaps also find many others that it would not be right to follow. (CSM I 112)

So the Discourse may offer examples for imitation, but imitation should be understood here in a specific way. What the Discourse reveals in this passage is that the very grounds for the certainty of any given singular understanding can only be represented in the ungrounded rhetoric of fable or resemblance, the “being-like” of allegorical representation. Descartes’ rationalist legacy emphasises rather too easily the role of mathematics in an epistemology understood in terms of exactitude conditioned by order and measure. The rationalist aspects of Descartes’ legacy were developed par excellence by G. W. Leibniz, who substituted the logical structure of judgement for Descartes’ suspension of assent. But we are able to read in the writing of this early modern philosopher that resemblance and exactitude are neither coincidental nor opposite (which we know is true of all relations of difference and identity). Rather, both are grounded in the infinite frontier itself, which is difference, understood by us as the Cogito—“I am thinking”—my existence as representability.

Thus the notion of imitation that Descartes employs is quite subtle and must be understood as a term in the series of models, masks, fables and representations of all kinds that characterise his work, the importance always of choosing one’s authorities, or models, with prudence. Thus what is to be imitated might perhaps best be thought in terms of imitation itself:

Fables make us imagine many events as possible when they are not. And even the most accurate histories, while not altering or exaggerating the importance of matters to make them more worthy of being read always omit the baser and less notable events; as a result, the other events appear in a false light. (CSM I 114)

So the Discourse combines fable (which conventionally offers an allegorical version of proliferating images, doublings and subtle illusions) with the necessary idealising finitude of a history, with its lacunae and arbitrary over-emphasis on selected aspects of an otherwise chaotic constellation of events and relations (the bad infinite). This very important qualification, which again points to Descartes’ consistent philosophical practice, must be taken into consideration when reading the fable/history of the Discourse itself, which records a vast pretence.

Architectural Metaphors

The nature of the pretence should be regarded as a kind of “temporary accommodation,” in line with the architectural metaphors he uses. For instance, he says: “before starting to rebuild your house, it is not enough simply to pull it down ... you must also provide yourself with some other place where you can live comfortably while building is in progress” (CSM I 122). This metaphor is of course constructed upon the subtle foundations of a whole allegorical system of architectural metaphors, which develop as a response to the familiar problems.

With regard to philosophy (as we have already observed), not one of its problems is not subject to disagreement (CSM I 115). And this situation is repeated in the empirical world where Descartes, while mixing with people of different humours, ranks and races, discovers “almost as much diversity as I had done earlier among philosophers” (115). So the problem of diversity is answered through the concept of singularity, and the architectural metaphor goes to work:

Buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better planned than those which several have tried to patch up by adapting old walls built for different purposes. Again, ancient cities which have gradually grown from mere village into large towns are usually ill-proportioned, compared with those orderly towns which planners lay out as they fancy on level ground. Looking at the buildings of the former individually, you will often find as much art in them, if not more, than in those of the latter; but in view of their arrangement—a tall one here, a small one there—and the way they make the streets crooked and irregular, you would say it is chance, rather than the will of men using reason, that placed them so.” CSM I 116).

Paradoxically Descartes’ aesthetic would favour new cities like Singapore or Milton Keynes over London, Venice or Dublin, while enjoying the particular buildings, squares or even neighbourhoods of the latter over the former. But no single architect could compose a well ordered whole out of eccentric individual visions. Again, for Descartes, the randomness that seems to have determined the way cities have grown is representative of the way individuals, who are sometimes capable of reasoned judgments, find that they are mere parts in an irreducible and chaotic diversity when faced with each other. This passage by Descartes is echoed by the twentieth century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a famous passage from the Logical Investigations, where he compares language to an ancient city:

Our language can be seen as an ancient city; a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. (8)

In Wittgenstein’s description the “new boroughs” seem to conform to Descartes’ ideal of “orderly” planning, overlaid, as Rationalism itself is supposed to have been, on ancient foundations, chaotic yet brilliant with baroque beauty. But both descriptions (one just after the beginning of modernity, the other just before the end) are linked by a single thread, by which the bad infinite becomes good in analogy. Citizens are already subjects who must speak in the peculiar metrics, write in the labyrinthine marks associated with the places where they live.

In the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure we read about the myths of language-change. In part Three of The Course in General Linguistics he notes that in the view of the early linguists, “anything which departed from an established order was an irregularity, a violation of an ideal form. Their illusion, very characteristic of the period, was that the original state of the language represented something superior, a state of perfection. They did not even inquire whether that earlier state had not been preceded by a still earlier one” (162). Saussure then proceeds to demonstrate that “the main factor in the evolution of languages, and the process by which they pass from one state of organisation to another, is analogy” (162). And it is precisely analogy that serves to “counterbalance the diversifying effect of sound change” (160). Analogy turns chaos into regularity. It converts a bad finite into infinite possibility for change. It demonstrates yet another way in which reason is necessarily linked to the exorbitance of rhetorical processes. And it reveals a notion of chance that is consonant with necessity. Language, if only in this sense, belongs to the generalization that reveals a massive tendency to inertia in community: the more participants there are who may influence change, the less chance there is for fundamental change to occur. Saussure again observes that: “Legal procedures, religious rites, ship’s flags, etc. are systems used only by a certain number of individuals acting together and for a limited time. A Language on the contrary, is something in which everyone participates all the time, and that is why it is constantly open to the influence of all. This key fact is by itself sufficient to explain why a linguistic revolution is impossible” (74).

This is more or less what Descartes is saying with the architectural metaphor:

We never see people pulling down all the houses of a city for the sole purpose of rebuilding them in a different style to make the streets more attractive; but we do see many individuals having their houses pulled down in order to rebuild them, some even being forced to do so when the houses are in danger of falling down and their foundations are insecure. This example convinced me that it would be unreasonable for an individual to reform a state by changing it from the foundations up and overturning it in order to set it up again; or again for him to plan to reform the body of sciences or the established order of teaching them in the schools. (117)

Here, Descartes’ pretence to conservatism with regard to issues of education and state reform is in fact a radicalism regarding the desire to construct the grounds for individual critical distance from existing social standards and norms. Citizenship is the mask of a subjectivity that ensures social existence but that is open to a radical exorbitance—the exorbitance of the Cogito, or writing, or analogy—which all name the possibility of a substitutions that cannot be named in fact.

So the architectural metaphors are not merely metaphors. They do the very work that the metaphors describe: they offer the exorbitant ground of a surrogate vocabulary without which “rebuilding” would remain one of the transient dreams of imagination; analogy offers the possibility of an exterior locus to the temporary accommodation of historical conditions. More crucially analogy does the work of architecture itself. As G. W. F. Hegel writes in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, the task of architecture:

Lies in so manipulating external organic nature that it becomes cognate to the mind, as an artistic outer world [...] It raises an enclosure round the assembly of those gathered together, as a defence against the threatening of the storm, against rain, the hurricane, and wild beasts, and reveals the will to assemble, although externally, yet in conformity with principles of art. (91)

Architecture thus resembles the ways in which communities guard themselves against the chaos that is their outside, it “resembles” them and offers a kind of communal identity in style and structure. Martin Heidegger, in the twentieth century also writes, on the purpose of a Greek Temple: “It is the templework that fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human beings. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people” (42). Here the specific nature of the architecture stands not only as the symbolic representation of a historically grounded people, but it also determines the essential experience of their world in its entirety.

It is always a possibility for Hegel, however, that architecture exceeds its limits and becomes sculpture, “for the limit of architecture ... is that it retains the spiritual as an inward existence over against the external forms of the art” (91). The “spirit” of a community is never “contained” as an inward form; it is rather already the sculptured exterior of architecture itself, because architecture inspires its material and forms “as the determinant content on behalf of which it sets to work” (91). In other words spirit builds its dwelling place around itself against a hostile outside, but that dwelling always bears the inventive trace of spirit itself, thus externalised in the becoming-sculpture of architecture, the dwelling itself. Spirit just is the sculpture of its external form. What all this says, very briefly, is that the essence of humans is what they build themselves, whether out of the ruins of inherited legacies, or bravely, independently, against the storm. This hint of heroism is never far from the modernist version of things. If the analogy between architecture and language is taken seriously, then the suggestion is that the human is no more or less than the milieu of the historical, cultural edifice, in language or in buildings, where the human must dwell for this dwelling just is the human. If so then we dwell in a radically unfinished project.

The modern subject, then, may seem something like an infant, shrouded in a terrifying authority which it needs in order to define itself; or it is something like Descartes’ I masquerading in the guise of the good citizen in order to be the true philosopher, enclosed by the architecture of geographical and historical forms but opening those forms up at their limits to an exorbitance that is spirit, or reason, nothing but this exorbitance.

Descartes solves the problem of cultural difference with reference to the infinity of figures available for representation. But the masquerade of subjectivity can be overcome only through the recognition of selfhood as masquerade, i.e., by reason. Reason however, as otherness itself, can only ever be manifest in the extravagant forms, the fables and fictions of the philosophical oeuvre, the extravagant fashions and necessary chances that help construct the bizarre cities of modernity and postmodernity. Only an engagement with the exorbitance of the frontier itself will help account for the conditions and responsibilities of the modern (and the postmodern) self. We should just add that any attempt to understand cultural frontiers within an already established framework (the finitude of a conceptual system), will discover that the frontier is not reducible to the available concepts. And because these limits to political thought are points of potential transformation, potential for change is thus conditioned by this infinite frontier.


Lacan and Language

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who from 1953 until 1980, in addition to his own clinical practice, gave regular seminars in Paris to an audience sometimes amounting to 800, many of whom were distinguished intellectuals in their own right. Lacan’s influence over the last 20 years or so on nearly all humanities disciplines cannot be doubted. His influence has been especially marked in literary criticism, film theory, art history and theory, continental philosophy and in some areas of social and political thought. Several schools of psychoanalysis have evolved out of his own, but otherwise his relation to established psychoanalytic institutions is strained, to say the least. His theory is by his own account a development of systematic reading of Sigmund Freud’s own works, and in fact his seminars, which are beginning to appear in transcriptions, are always based around particular texts by Freud. But many other influences are apparent, including surrealism, continental philosophy and structural linguistics, which provides much of his vocabulary if not his theoretical base. He uses other sciences like biology, optics, mathematics and physics more for their metaphorical resources rather than any objective principles. This is an important point: Lacan follows Freud in making use of analogies to explain otherwise unexplainable things, so in this respect we can see that psychoanalysis shares some similar characteristics with literature and art generally. There is, for instance, an insistence on the rhetorical dimension underlying human experience. Lacan’s writings provide the clearest example of this aspect of psychoanalysis, so much so that, according to Lacan, literature and psychoanalysis are merely two different types of discourse with the same aims—that is, to expose the discursive dimension of knowledge, power and social relations as the locus of determinations on emotional life.

The Unconscious is the Discourse of the Other

According to Lacan, the human subject is always split between a conscious side, a mind that is accessible, and an unconscious side, a series of drives and forces which remain inaccessible. The cost of human “knowledge” is that these drives must remain unknown. What is most basic to each human entity is what is most alien. This (S) is the symbol that Lacan uses to figure the subject in its division. We are what we are on the basis of something that we experience to be missing from us—our understanding of the other—that is the other side of the split out of which our unconscious must emerge. Because we experience this “something missing” as a lack we desire to close it, to fill it in, to replace it with something. Lacan calls this lack desire. Desire is what cannot be satisfied even when our demands are met. All our needs are at once converted into desires that cannot be satisfactorily fulfilled. This is why sexuality cannot be considered as the result of a need. The unconscious manifests itself by the way it insists on filling the “gap” that has been left by the very thing the subject feels is lacking in him or her, that is the unconscious! (The unconscious attempts to fill in the gap caused by the unconscious).

The Unconscious is structured like a Language

Lacan borrows some ideas of linguistics that Freud did not have access to. As we have seen, Saussure showed that a sign is not necessarily something that connects a word or name to a thing, but is in fact something which connects a sound or image to a concept. The sound or image is called a signifier. The concept is called a signified. Meaning is produced not only by the relationship between the signifier and the signified but also, crucially, by the position of the signifiers in relation to other signifiers (in a given context). When Saussure’s theory is put together with Freud’s it is not difficult to see that the movement of signifiers, which generates meaning, must remain fundamentally unconscious. Meaning may only have a place in what Lacan calls “the signifying chain.” So the signifier has primacy over the signified, which means that meaning is generated not by the normal meaning of a word but by the place the word has in a signifying chain.

Metaphor and Metonymy

Brief Reminder
Metaphor: substitutes a word for another word.
Metonymy: involves a linear form of displacement.

These two axes of language—substitution and displacement—correspond to the working of the unconscious. Metonymy, which carries language along its syntagmatic axis, corresponds to the displacement of desire that characterizes the dream work in Freud. Metaphor, on the other hand, corresponds to the paradigmatic axis, the axis of substitution and, therefore, corresponds to that aspect of condensation whereby different figures can be substituted or are condensed into one through an overdetermined nodal point.

Compare Freud’s distinction to Saussure’s formulation:
Signified Conscious
Signifier Unconscious

Lacan turns the formulation on its head:


Henceforth the unconscious, sexuality and fantasy can be pictured as the Signifier over the signified. The unconscious is constituted in the same way as our intrinsic ability to speak. Desire is left always unsatisfied and is either displaced from signifier to signifier or it is substituted for—one signifier for another—and the whole process makes up a “chain of signifiers,” which remains unconscious but which, like the unconscious, leaves traces of itself, traces which may be read.

Metonymy follows the horizontal line of signifiers, which never cross the bar (of repression) that leads to the signified and to signification. Just as desire is always deferred from one object to the next, so the signifier suspends signification while following the horizontal chain. Each signifier that fails to cross the bar has exactly the same meaning. If signifies lack (desire).

Metaphor is placed in a vertical relation. One signifier can substitute as the signified for another signifier. “Crossing the bar” is really the action of one signifier becoming signified by taking the place reserved for the signified itself—the bar allows the substitution of one signifier for another:

Sr S
Sd î Sr

Sexuality and Sexual Difference

One of the most controversial contributions of psychoanalysis has been on the issue of sexuality and sexual difference. Most famously Freud introduced a new definition of sexuality. We need to first look at the more traditional one (which still has adherents today) and then examine the nature of the Freudian definition. The terms on which sexuality is usually defined turn on the relation between notions of normality and notions of perversity. Freud was at his most controversial when he stated that he had discovered a form of sexuality present in infants. At this stage the infant expresses his or her sexuality polymorphously (taking many forms)—that is, with no particular fixed object or aim, just a kind of indulgent pleasure. The meaning of this pleasure is then presented back to the adolescent in a kind of deferred action in which primal fantasies are given a more fixed shape (helped along by the notorious Oedipus Complex) with a socially sanctioned object type and a useful aim in reproduction.

Deferred Action

Nachtragtlichkeit describes the ways in which an infantile experience that is either incomprehensible or traumatic is nonetheless somehow retained by memory unconsciously and reactivated at a later time in a different context. The notion comes from an early stage in Freud’s speculations and was used to explain the mechanism of hysteria, in which a traumatic early experience is reactivated in terms of a less traumatic later provocation. He sometimes explains this with the mildly comic story of a young man infatuated with women. “A young man who was a great admirer of feminine beauty was talking once of the good-looking wet nurse who had suckled him when he was a baby. ‘I’m sorry,’ he remarked, ‘that I didn’t make a better use of my opportunity.’” (IoD 295). This is not, of course, an example of deferred-action, but it does illustrate the notion by emphasising an inability at the early stage to understand or to act at all on experiences, which are retrospectively activated in later life. Freud’s commentators have found the notion more useful than he evidently did, in so far as the rhetorical aspect has become much more obvious. Signification involves the constant reactivation of significant material in new and unpredictable contexts, which thus produces new significance and new meanings.

Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality can be a frustrating read, with its delays and detours and often inconclusive observations. Perhaps because of this, however, it remains one of the key books on sexuality and sexual difference both within and outside the institution of psychoanalysis. There are two striking aspects to Freud’s work on sexuality. The first involves his use of the mainstream professional views of his time. He doesn’t simply critique these or oppose them and he doesn’t even try to produce a convincing alternative vocabulary to talk about these issues. So his quite stark departure from mainstream knowledge is made within the terms and the frameworks of that knowledge itself, which is why the standard oppositions like normal and perverse, masculine and feminine, etc. remain part of the vocabulary. However the system governing the meanings of that vocabulary is both subverted and transformed in Freud’s text. The second aspect involves his use of evidence in relation to the professional views. Basically he employs the same hypothetical framework but transforms it through his rigorous and tenacious insistence on the evidence—what happens to the theory when one confronts it with these facts? The theory changes. Perversity, which was once a category for sexuality gone wrong, a perversion of normal sexuality (like fetishism, same sex desire, bestiality, even masturbation), becomes the general condition of all sexuality per se. Normal desire, on the contrary, which had an extremely narrow definition supported (as it still is) by everyday common-sense assumptions, is now understood as being one of the numerous contingent possibilities of a general perversity. Thus Freud appears to be saying extremely odd things in a rather traditional language. In that language, that framework, that vocabulary, however, Freud’s theories remain the only ones that work.


Freud describes the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality in the following way:

Psychoanalysis considers that a choice of object independently of its sex—freedom to range equally over male and female objects—as it is found in childhood, in primitive states of society and early periods of history, is the original basis from which, as a result of restriction in one direction or the other, both the normal and the inverted types develop. Thus from the point of view of psychoanalysis the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based on an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature. (Freud, 1915).

In other words, the normal assumption is that normal sexuality involves an exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women. Both the implicit one way sign [men è women] and the exclusive nature of the interest are present in the traditional notions. Of course it is obvious that sexual interest ranges all over the place and that women fancy other people as much as men do. But for the traditional views these would have been problems. For Freud, that is no less true, but for him the normal version (boxed above) is also a problem and has no clear explanation. For him the evidence shows that sexuality is grounded in a condition where there is no pre-existing object and no defined aim. The pleasure principle is unscrupulous.

Some rudimentary definitions of sexuality don’t much help. The standard definitions of sexuality grow out of husbandry. Sexuality has the following related meanings: the condition of being sexed; being male or female; having sexual characteristics; feelings or desires to a specified degree (over-, under-, etc.); the condition of having a sex. Thus the sexuality of someone (their being one or other of the sexes) gets extended to also signify behavioural characteristics. You might begin to expect certain types of behaviour from one or the other sex and you can justly express shock or concern when people behave outside those norms. So what is a sex? The dictionary tells us that Sex is that by which an animal or plant is male or female; the quality of being male or female; either of the divisions according to this, or its members collectively; the whole domain connected with this distinction. (In so far as I am sexed, my sex is male; I share this quality with the whole of the male sex; but I share the quality of being sexed with the entire human race as well as the animal and plant kingdoms). It seems that we are not going to get very far without encountering some aspect of our universally shared sexual difference. This is all very well if you are mating chicks or growing violets. In that case the distinctions have a practical and functional purpose. This is the female and this is the male. Put them together in these particular ways and they will produce. In so far as people reproduce in these ways too, a kind of loose analogy emerges, conferring specific meaning upon each relation that may or may not have a sexual aspect (in the biological sense). The idea that biology is at the root of human sexual relations, and thus explains human sexuality, is at best grounded in the loosest of analogies. Psychoanalysis has played an important role in helping to undo these narrow and ungrounded assumptions. Along the way it has revealed a tangle of problems.

Psychoanalysis, without departing from the traditional vocabulary, develops an extended and transformed understanding of the concept of sexuality. Before Freud, sexuality was most likely to be defined as an instinct with a predetermined object and aim. The object was a member of the opposite sex. The aim was for union of the genital organs in coitus. The sole function was considered to be reproduction. Any kind of sexuality or sexual behaviour that does not aim for reproduction is considered to be perverse. Again the influence from cultivation and husbandry is clear. What is the good of a stud that won’t mount the mare? But psychoanalysis questions the notion of perversity.

Freud takes one of the most influential and highly respected authorities on the matter, Krafft-Ebing, as an example of the normative explanation. This is Krafft-Ebing:

During the time of maturation of physical processes in the reproductive glands, desire arise in the consciousness of the individual, which have for their purpose the perpetuation of the species (sexual instinct) [...] with opportunity for the natural satisfaction of the sexual instinct, every expression of it that does not correspond with the purpose of nature, i.e. propagation—must be regarded as perverse.

According to this view, nature somehow makes itself felt in the consciousness of the mature adult, in the form of a conscious desire to mate with a member of the opposite sex. Nature, in this sense, is simply the need for the reproduction of the race (that peculiarly nineteenth century notion of evolution is evident here). The only “natural” satisfaction of this itch, this desire, would be subordinated to the purposes of nature. Anything that does not obviously lead to reproduction is not natural (“it’s not natural!”), because it would be a perversion of nature’s aim. As usual with scientific views of this time, purpose itself, the Greek telos, is the unanalysed aspect underlying these assumptions. Krafft-Ebing, it is important to remember, is merely representing the popular views in scientific discourse.

Freud responds explicitly to these views at the beginning of his “Three Essays on Sexuality”:

Popular opinion has quite definite ideas about the nature and characteristics of this sexual instinct. It is generally understood to be absent in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon the other; while its aim is presumed to be sexual union. [...] We have every reason to believe, however, that these views give a very false picture of the true situation. If we look into them more closely we shall find that they contain a number of errors, inaccuracies and hasty conclusions.

In the “Three Essays” Freud doesn’t substitute a new theory for the old ones. Rather he extends and transforms the popular and scientific notions of sexuality by correcting the errors, clarifying the inaccuracies and rethinking the hasty conclusions that make up what he calls the “false picture.” A new picture thus emerges out of the ruins of a now transformed vocabulary.

The evidence against holding to the false picture is available in everyday life. Freud also draws explicitly from his fund of analytic experience, in many cases with distressed men and women of the inherently conservative European bourgeoisie, who had never been able to voice their discomfort about their own apparently perverse desires. The distinction between normal and perverse is so riddled with overlaps that it is impossible to extricate the two. There are numerous perversions and they are common (though not explicitly talked about in Freud’s time). Not only are there numerous varieties of different object but also there are uncountable and creative methods for achieving satisfaction. On the model of means and ends, the normal view holds that sexuality manifests in activities designed to achieve the aim of reproduction. The end is reproduction; the method is union of the male and female genitals. However in Freud’s experiences with his patients, the methods often overlap between the normal and perverse. In other words very similar kinds of activities occur whether there is an obviously reproductive function or not. Men and women will have “sex” in all kinds of ways including “normal” coitus. The ends are as various as the means. Furthermore, same sex relations, as well as masturbation and the fantasies of all kinds that accompany it, each exhibit similar routes to satisfaction, in terms for instance of flirting and foreplay. Even a comfortably heterosexual couple will use a creative variety of methods, including coitus, to achieve satisfaction. So what is consistent in all this is not the function of reproduction at all but the function of satisfaction. Thus the reproductive teleology has no ground in evidence at all.

Evidence against Normativity

The distinction between the normal and the perverse is riddled with overlaps.

A great diversity of sexual “perversion” not only exists but is common.

This diversity involves not only the choice of sexual object but also the type of activity used to obtain satisfaction.

In the popular view, the “normal” type of sexual activity involves only coitus between members of the opposite sexes with the aim of reproduction.

But the “normal” and the “perverse” are not so easily separated.

For instance, the usual form of satisfaction may become temporarily impossible, so a “perverse” satisfaction may replace it.

And the sort of foreplay leading up to normal sexual behaviour is usually also found leading up to perverse types as well.

Freud often found that repressed wishes and desires are of a sexual kind and that the repressed wish in these cases is a perverse sexual wish. He concluded that the so-called normal types of behaviour belong with the forces of rational and socially acceptable convention defensive of the desiring and creative agency. In other words the normative version of sexuality is socially rather than biologically determined. There is a biological difference but—like all difference—it is meaningful only in terms of the institutions that organise experience is specific ways. And we are back in the rhetorical dimension. The libido is thus a kind of undetermined force that becomes bound by the various kinds of restriction, paradigmatically the Oedipus Complex, that represent the institutions of culture and society.


Freud was struck by the similarity between the myth of Oedipus and his own discoveries of unconscious processes. The myth is most clearly dramatised in the plays of Sophocles (who was a contemporary of Socrates). In Sophocles’ drama the unfolding of the tragedy involves Oedipus’ gradual discovery of his own guilt. He discovers that he has in ignorance killed his father and that the woman he loves and has married is none other than his mother. As a consequence of his discovery he blinds himself and exiles himself from his home. In fulfilling the oracle that begins the story he fails to escape his predestined fate. This is Freud’s explanation: “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (IoD 364). Freud argues that the power of this artwork lies in the ability of the poet to force us into a transferred recognition of what he calls “our own inner minds.” Those same impulses (to patricide and incest with the mother) are still lurking yet “suppressed” within all of us. Oedipus’ unconscious guilt (which is literal—he is not at first conscious of his guilt) stands figuratively for our own unconscious guilt. “Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature, and after their revelation we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scene of our childhood” (IoD 365). This last sentence has many resonances. Freud points out in a footnote to a later edition that it is this part of his theory that has provoked the most embittered denials, fiercest opposition and the most amusing distortions (100 year later we are often led to suspect that this is still the case). Thus the blinding scene is a metaphorical indication of the vicious resistance to the insights that psychoanalysis offers. Freud also, significantly, likens not the myth itself but the action of the play to the processes of psychoanalysis. He says that it “consists in nothing other than the processes of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement—a process that can be likened to the work of a psycho-analysis” (363). It places Freud firmly within the canon of arguments about false-consciousness (along with Plato, Descartes, Marx and Wittgenstein). But we need to ask, what is the so-called “Nature” that the Oedipus myth actually represents (the truth behind the false and blinded consciousness). Freud’s use of he word Nature in fact already illustrates how he is replacing the traditional biological ground of sexuality (the cultivation/husbandry ground) with an alternative in the Oedipus complex.

The Phylogenetic Hypothesis

Freud returned many times to the question of innate disposition and perhaps the most outrageous, yet most consistently held, version is the hypothesis of phylogenesis, which follows a somewhat Darwinian trend. Here, at its most extreme, the argument suggest that in human pre-history a great tribal father was actually killed by the jealous horde and that all of us are born with traces of this pre-historical guilt carried through the genetic phylum (like hair-colour in the chromosomes). One thing is constant here. There is a constitutional anxiety (the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaarde had in the previous century coined the phrase “anxiety over nothing”) that is related unconsciously to a desire for the death of the father and a desire for union with the mother.

Sexual Difference

It is Freud’s account of the Oedipus Complex and its modes of resolution that really grounds the psychoanalytic theory of sexual difference. As such the theory is diagnostic only in so far as it attempts to lay bare the underlying structures that lead to certain tendencies in the relations between people. Unlike the traditional notions there is no sense of what men and women should or should not be like, how they should live in terms of their sexual differentiation. It attempts, instead to find out how people come to be as they actually are in the first place.

In classical psychoanalysis the father represents a third term which must break the imagined dyadic unit of mother and child. Until the “father” interrupts it, the mother-child unit—a perfect self-contained dyad—is asocial. The father stands for social symbolisation. In terms of this structure the distinction between men and women exists but it only has meaning symbolically. Lacan provides the following witty diagram, based upon the story of the two children, a boy and a girl, in a train who, on arriving at a station see this sign:

The boy exclaims, “we are at Gentlemen.” The girl responds by saying, “no we’re not, we’re at Ladies.” The two doors indicate the ways in which boys and girls are given the choice of two alternatives—each of which has intractable meaning in terms of the other—as to where they each are in the social topography. The doors are themselves just signifiers as are the different sexes. Sex (male and female) is always subject to identifications, which tell me who I am in terms of my gender. In traditional terms sex would be the empirical dimension of sexuality and gender would be the transcendental structure or system that gives us its meaning. As we have already indicated, however, the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental is already extremely problematic, so we are going to have to find some way of dealing with the difference itself.

Lacan’s version of the triangulated Oedipus complex (mother—child—father) combines Freud’s theory with structural linguistics, developed as we have seen particularly from the theories of Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Jakobson. The relationship between the child and mother is imagined in the infant’s unconscious as something that was once self-contained and entirely satisfying but has since been broken up. The post-break-up (which is a psychoanalytic version of the fall from grace, mankind now banished from its eternal Garden of Eden) is in fact the child’s beginning. Its prehistory is nothing but an imaginary desire. In other words the child’s experience begins with a feeling of something having been lost. The symbol of this loss is like a third term that has come between the mother and the child—the father who (in a literal version) comes home from work at the end of an otherwise perfect day ordering his dinner and smelling of pipe smoke and the intrusive outside. Lacan calls this “third term” the symbolic because it “symbolises” all relations. Freud had called this third term “the father,” perhaps because of the specific nature of his own upbringing, his dreams, and the dreams of most of his patients (who were mostly bourgeois Europeans). But the father is just a symbol too (anything can represent it). Symbolisation works because we make imaginary identifications, which are based upon proximity and immediate experience (the contiguous axis, or metonymy). What we imagine to be the case is always to be understood symbolically and that makes it seem real (the paradigmatic axis, or metaphor). Symbolisation thus acts as an introduction to the world that is at the same time an introduction of lack. The introduction of a meaningful element disrupts the perfect unity of the imaginary relation, which only has the sense of a perfect unity by virtue of the meaningful element that excludes perfection. The experience of lack is therefore the very thing that gives us the sense that there was something to lack in the first place—it gives meaning to my partial relations and opens my experience to the other—which, of course, I cannot experience at all. The real in Lacan’s theory is a plenum. A plenum is something complete in itself, so full that nothing need be added to it. However because experience is determined by the relation between the symbolic and the imaginary (Lacan’s complicated version of the transcendental and the empirical) the plenum is figured only as an impossible outside. It can therefore appear as a horrifying mysterious thing (enter the house of horror) that sometimes threatens to break open the illusion (our social reality) brought about by the symbolisation of our imaginary desires.

Lacan was so taken by the similarities between Freud’s theory of the unconscious and structural linguistics that he was able to come up with some fairly systematic concordances. At the risk of over-schematising (which Lacan attempted to resist, though his theory encourages it) we might chart them in the following way:


The Impossible
Literal language
Relation to the Other
Relation to the object
No relation

Under the Symbolic we find the system of differences between signifiers that determines their meanings, which Lacan relates to the metaphorical dimension of figurative language (this stands in for that and excludes it). He felt that Freud’s explanation of the dream-work allied metaphor to the process of condensation (which puts different images together under the single sign of a metaphorical nodal point). Under the Imaginary we find proximal identifications that indicate the relations of individual desire, which Lacan relates to the metonymic dimension of figurative language (this stands in a proximal and inclusive relation to that). He felt that Freud’s explanation of the dream work allied the movement of metonymy to the process of displacement (which in a disguised way displaces from an object of immense intensity to an object of relatively trivial significance). Metonymy tends to exclude the meaningful aspect of language for the sake of being-next-to while metaphor privileges the meaningful aspect of proximal signs by giving them meaning, thrusting signification underneath them, under the symbolic “cut” of the bar between signifier and signified in Saussure’s diagram of the sign.

S æ S

Under The Real, in contradistinction to these runaway overdetermined signs, lies the impossible experience of the plenum. The real stands for literal meaning (as opposed to literal uses of meaning, which are always possible). In so far as no experience of the real is possible (experience is the consequence of the interaction between imaginary identifications and symbolic signification) it stands for the impossible. The ideal, beyond signification, which stands in for the fact that there is no real relation, is the non-relational possibility itself, or just death. We can fairly clearly see, I think, that relations of any kind are only possible through certain kinds of signification. In terms of desire, the proximal relation (I just want to get next to you) blots out signified meaning in favour of contiguous relation (pure chance in its extreme form, which is a little disconcerting for those who are waiting for Mr Right). This is perhaps best experienced as a kind of jouissance (the French term denotes ecstatic enjoyment) or petit-mort (little death, a colloquialism for orgasm). In terms of the symbolic, relations are overdetermined by many permutations of social identification, including gender, class, position, status etc. Anything like a real relation is of course impossible, as is a pure symbolic or pure imaginary relation. Everything seems to appropriate bits of everything else like a perpetually shifting system of parasites with no non-parasitical host. Everything to a certain extent depends upon something of its others.

As far as the Oedipal Triangle is concerned it is possible to map a Lacanian triangle over a Freudian one, in the following way:


Lacan and the theoretical imagination

We should say something about Lacan’s style. In most people’s minds the difference between literary text and theoretical text could not be more marked. Literary texts are full of images, narratives, concrete situations, sometimes wildly imaginative sequences, or they are formally structured pieces, like different types of poem. Theory is a dry discourse, with long, technical sounding terms, full of abstract ideas, objective and perhaps coldly scientific. It often seems difficult if not downright perverse, to apply these coldly scientific systems of ideas to the multifarious and rich fund of personal experience. Lacan’s style suggests that he is concerned to enliven scientific discourse with the metaphorical fecundity of literature. But, at the same time, he seems to want to use the descriptive clarity of scientific formulations to suggest, metaphorically, the otherwise indefinable and sometimes inexplicable aspects of the ordinary common experiences. As the contemporary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written: “Psychoanalysis began as a kind of virtuoso improvisation within the science of medicine; and free association is itself ritualised improvisation. With the invention of psychoanalysis Freud glimpsed a daunting prospect: a profession of improvisers. And in the ethos of Freud and his followers, improvisation was closer to the inspiration of the artists than to the discipline of scientists.” So we can already glimpse the point of psychoanalysis for critical theory: a confluence of separate traditions—scientific and artistic—produces something new—psychoanalytic theory.

Returning to Freud

“We are not following Freud, we are accompanying him. The fact that an idea occurs somewhere in Freud’s work doesn’t, for all that, guarantee that it is being handled in the spirit of the Freudian researches. As for us, we are trying to conform to the spirit, to the watchword, to the style of this research”

Freud is, on one level, replying to an ancient prejudice—that which derives human experience from consciousness. For Freud, consciousness is an effect of instinctual neurological or biological drives. The hypotheses of two principles of mental functioning distinguishes between that of pleasure, which wants immediate satisfaction, and that of reality, which puts off the satisfaction of desire for a more appropriate and safer moment. We are not, on this model, born rational and responsible, nor do we learn rationality and responsibility—these are simply terms that describe the instinct for survival in negotiation with the instinct for the reduction of unpleasant impulses. Freud later modified his hypothesis of two principles and reduced them both to a single, rather frightening one, called the death instinct. For him what is typical of instincts is that they tend towards an absolute reduction of all disturbing impulses (even pleasure aims for this). On the one hand the death instinct aims for immediate cessation of dangerous impulses yet, on the other hand, it tones this drive down as a dangerous impulse itself. So in the complex reality of social existence this death instinct can be understood as both the law (the symbolic) and (imaginary) desire in a kind of negotiation. The game that we now know as Fort-Da, which was played by Freud’s grandson, exemplifies the kind of strategies that the unconscious employs to contain the sense of loss that operating in a social world imposes. The mother—as the sole source of comfort and sustenance, leaves for work and is absent for very long periods of time. The infant plays a game with a cotton reel on a string, shouting “Fort” (gone) when it is on the other side of the cot’s curtains and “Da” (here) when he reels it back. Symbolically the cotton reel stands in as a substitute for the mother (oh the power of fantasy). And the reeling-in that the child repeatedly practices stands for the imaginary control he has over a contingent and arbitrary exterior. The reality principle, of course, concerns the child’s ability to tolerate the truth of the outside—oh no, the mother really is absent and this cotton reel is just a cotton reel. The process of mourning after the death of a loved one is very similar. It is this process that allows us to now explore the increasingly influential work of Melanie Klein.


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