meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8"> deltrans13bkgrnd
Deleuze for the Desperate #13 Background – debates with Lacan on language

Dave Harris

I have said on the notes on my website that I am certainly not claiming a very deep acquaintance with the work of Lacan. I have read much more Deleuze and Guattari and I have tried to pin down what it is about Lacan that they want to oppose. That is still my interest and it clearly means I have been selective in my occasional reading of Lacan. I can only offer a few points that might start to clarify things a bit. Obviously, much more reading, of the originals and the commentaries will be required if you want to really get to the bottom of the controversy. Let's jump in.

It should be said from the start that the main model of language we are going to be criticizing is one that dominated French thinking, and to some extent Anglo-Saxon thinking as well, the approach normally known as structuralist linguistics and associated with Saussure and, for social sciences, with Lévi-Strauss (I have notes on my website of Levi-Strauss’s persuasive demonstration of the power of a structural analysis of kinship systems). There is also occasional discussion of Chomsky’s linguistics too, where a universal logical structure lies at the heart of all transformational grammar.

The main proponent of the French view for D&G though is Jacques Lacan. I am only an occasional and light browser of Lacan, and everyone says he is really difficult to read, probably for the same reasons that Deleuze, Guattari  or Foucault are. As I mentioned in the Introduction, they are all exponents of a particular kind of French elite academic discourse, full of allusions and implicit references to other philosophers but also to writers and musicians. Lacan’s work is strewn with words in French, German, Latin and Greek. An important essay on the phallus (in Lacan's Ecrits) summarizes the argument by quoting two untranslated Greek words in Greek script, for example. The material is really only for those with no pressure from university assessment, with financially secure leisure and good access to online dictionaries and commentaries, and even then it is formidable. Although Lacan is rarely mentioned explicitly in A Thousand Plateaus (ATP), I suspect that a lot of the casual discussions of actual examples, from stickleback behaviours to paintings, are really part of an argument with Lacan – no doubt there is a commentary somewhere to flesh this out.

The structuralist model is criticized on two grounds. We can divide them into political and theoretical grounds, although the two are linked:

Let’s start with arguments about the political effects of this model. Structural linguistics offers a particularly abstract conception of language, and again it is one that offers simple rules and options for analyzing communication, despite the highly varied contents of such communications – the language of both psychiatric patients and analysts can be grasped by the model, for example. We can understand all forms of communication in terms of universal components like signifier and signified, and there are a few operations on these components that describe most acts of communication – the construction of narratives, the use of metaphor or metonym. In metaphors, the meaning of a term is creatively extended or displaced by suggesting an identity between two separate terms – saying, for example,  'the moon was a ghostly galleon'. With metonyms, the meaning of something is condensed so that a part  stands for a whole – Marilyn Monroe is described as a blonde, so her blonde hair stands for the real person and all her supposed characteristics -- describing her as a blonde recalls her bubbly personality, combination of naivety and sexiness and so on. I have summarized Lacan's definitions here. Freud uses words like displacement and condensation to describe the processes going on in in developing the imagery in dreams. Lacan is arguing that these are directly translatable into more conscious linguistic operations of metaphor and metonym.

It is not surprising that for Deleuze and Guattari this makes structural linguistics a perfect conception of language for modern abstract capitalism that also transforms reality into simple and abstract terms, represents the value of commodities by their prices for example, and then suggests fixed rules of exchange for them, regardless of what those commodities are, or what they are used for in reality. Modern capitalism also increasingly concerns itself with adding meaning to the various goods and services it provides, adding signifiers, doing semiotics, extending metaphors, generating images, again regardless of content.

Conventional language constrains our creative thinking including our thinking about new more liberating forms of politics.  Right from the beginning, when children learn a language they also acquire what D&G call 'order words', that is information about their place in social relationships and about appropriate social behaviour. The next audio file explores that concept a bit more. Children develop as individual enunciators and thus come to think of  themselves simply as individuals in social terms. They come to acquire an understanding of social authority, and they also form an understanding of the world based on the conventional words that are used to describe it.  Conventional language implies that things can easily be given a simple name and understood in simple sentences – this is 'the objective illusion' that events and objects are neat and simple, with dominant meanings expressed in a single word. Events and objects for D&G have both virtual and actual components as we saw with the haeceeity. The whole process linking language to social order is understood as an openly political process, arising in definite social conditions, whereas in Lacan and other structuralists, it is a part of some universal form of human development. Far more pessimistic political implications follow as we shall see.

We can see this operating more locally too. In the criticism of conventional Freudian psychoanalysis, a major field for Guattari, we see clear examples of using forms of language which imply dominance. The utterances of neurotics or psychotics are to be reduced to the classic terminology of expert analysts. To cite a common criticism, developed extensively in Anti Oedipus, Freudian analysis insists that ultimately many neurotic symptoms can be understood as arising from some infantile struggles over identity in the family,  often summarized as the Oedipal complex. That is seen as a universal form, central to developing the human personality in socially acceptable ways. The approach in Deleuze and Guattari is to see the struggles of neurotics and psychotics quite differently as attempts to raise and explore philosophical issues about bodies and social constraints and to seek alternative understandings of themselves as ‘singularities’. 

We saw something of this in the Plateau on the BwO with the thoughts of Antonin Artaud or the insistence that sexual experiments like masochism are not just perversions but explorations of bodily potentials and pleasures. In the second Plateau, one of Freud’s famous patients, the Wolf-Man, tries to convey something about the importance of multiplicities in explaining animal and human behaviour. He does this by referring to a group of wolves in his dream, alluding to the wolf as a pack animal, one showing emergent characteristics arising from collective behaviour. Freud seems unable to understand this point and treats his patient as a self-contained individual. In other discussions, including some in Anti-Oedipus, a case discussed by Freud, Little Hans, is seen as a child trying to explore his own rhizomatic connections between his immediate family and the activity involving horses working at a busy depot that he can see through his window. This can be described as Hans ‘becoming horse’. The poor chap is crushed back into the oedipal triangle, seen as a made anxious and agoraphobic by his uncertainties about sex and reproduction. (There is a good account of early criticisms of Freud on Little Hans and Klein on Little Richard in Deleuze (2006). As with all critiques, though, it is quite assertive, very lightly referenced back to the actual studies.)

In Guattari’s own work (in Genosko's reader) , there is a more general application too in that all sorts of minorities, including sexual minorities are labelled as perverted or neurotic by conventional psychoanalysis: they have to be encouraged instead to see their identities as singularities, particular options within the general forces that construct subjectivity.

Turning to more theoretical issues, the problem with structural linguistics is that it does not refer much to the reality that is captured by language. It is too formal and abstract, and misses out important aspects of actual language use.   Let's take Lacan as an example again.

The sections in ATP follow from more extensive criticisms of Lacan in Anti-Oedipus. Clearly there is no time or space to pursue these very far here, but one main focus there is on Lacan's view of how desire works. To be very brief, desire for Lacan is rooted in both basic needs and more complex social demands, somewhere between them (Ecrits). Needs, demands and desires all have to be symbolized, expressed in language and acted out in relations to others. Sexual and family relations are excellent case-studies where we can see see this happening. In infancy, for example, desire becomes attached to a powerful signifier, the phallus, a symbolic penis, (see below) and so the whole mystery of desire and its connection with other people, become symbolized as a puzzle about who possesses the phallus, who can initiate desires. The phallus is so central it becomes a master signifier. It can come to symbolize relation with a wide range of signifieds.

In Anti-Oedipus, this whole structure is challenged. Instead of direct connections between signifiers and signified, we have a whole number of connections or conjunctions between desires and their objects, not all of which operate through conventional language. Desire itself is not a simple matter of sexuality, but more a matter of flows of more general energy. It is machinic, offering many potential combinations of these flows. It will only be channelled through conventional language or the Oedipal triangle in specific circumstances. Desiring machines also contain many more possibilities, both realized and applied, because they connect together quite separate or heterogeneous elements:  we are on familiar ground if we remember that the term desiring machine was to be replaced with the notion of the assemblage in ATP.

By breaking with the Lacanian system, we also break with Lacan's insistence that there must always be an alienation or lack accompanying desire. That lack arose because subjects are never able to fully grasp with signifiers their objects of desire, both their own and those of others The notion of the desiring machine with its complex conjunctions seems to imply that there is no one simple perfect connection in human desire to be sought, and so no permanent feeling of lack or alienation if it is not achieved. Instead, there is pleasure and recognition of one’s own singularity in exploring the available connections. Any alienation arises from the connection of desiring machines to social machines. Capitalism requires the regulation or repression of desire and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis can be seen as spelling out the apparently independent internal dimensions of this repression in the mental activity of the individuals who have to live in that system.

Even a brief reading shows that Lacan sees human language as simply dominating all other available meanings. There are other realms of meaning such as the Imaginary, but they are all totally dominated by the realm of the Symbolic, of language. Note that Lacan uses capital letters for his terms to indicate that he is using them in a special technical sense.  So human beings might experience affects from real-life processes. They might be able to deal with a range of images, impressions, or general models of material and social reality. But as soon as they want to elaborate and develop any of these meanings, they are forced to use symbolic language. As soon as they do, they have to obey the rules and conventions of language use, which are external to them. Language use is the basis for relations with other people as speakers and listeners. The linguistic reactions of others, including those apparently located in the unconscious,  are crucial in developing our sense of ourselves.  At the level of individual psychoanalysis, patients can only describe their symptoms in conventional language, and analysts can only enquire about them using conventional language. It is only a short step to see psychoanalysis itself as nothing but a matter of deciphering the language of psychiatric patients.

To grasp that language we need to understand structural linguistics, especially what it tells us about the relations between signifiers and signifieds in the sign. Human language offers many sophisticated literary forms of combining signs in actual speech or writing. Metaphor and metonymy are the most often discussed forms, but there are all the other literary manipulations as well. Using English rather than Greek words, we can talk about attempts to persuade, to project meanings on to others, to use irony, exaggeration, inversion, compression and so on. We have to remember that the signified is not a real object or event but an expression in speech of a concept about the real, so 'reality itself ', outside of languauge, does not exist and cannot constrain us. Expressing or establishing meaning then becomes a matter of developing acceptable relations of various kinds between signifiers both with themselves and with signifieds. These expressions can be very complex ones, as we see particularly well with the accounts of delusions in psychiatric patients. Schreber’s account of his illness, a rare example of a written account, for example, is lengthy and coherent, and although describing miracles and inner voices, resembles academic work in its well-worked out arguments. In particular, he has a classic view that if he is surprised by or unable to fully explain something, it cannot be a delusion arising from his own subjective knowledge but must be real.I was reminded immediately of a classic claim for ethnographic method that it generates surprise.  If you are tempted to read a bit of his account, Chapter 15 is a good example of this style.

Lacan went on to describe all the conventional understandings that divide self from other, the conscious and the unconscious components, the thinking ego and the acting ego as linguistic relations. To cite his famous slogan for example, the unconscious is structured like a language. In another slogan, one that particularly annoys Guattari, social interaction is entirely linguistic: the [human] subject is [only] a signifier for other signifiers (criticized rather implicitly in Plateau 4, p.138) . One example, in Lacan’s Seminars Book XV, refers to the work of Pavlov in conditioning a dog to respond to a noise, a trumpet or bell, by salivating or producing some other gastric juice. This is a classic act of successful communication, says Lacan, where the only significance the human subject Pavlov has for the dog is as a source of signifiers – noises in this case, and received as images not human symbols  – and the only significance of the dog for Pavlov is as an emitter of other signifiers – gastric juices –which Pavlov then elaborates as symbols or symptoms of something.  Pavlov and the dog are significant others for each other because they do something that is unexpected unpredictable,and this is how we recognise genuine others. We relate to others only via the exchange of signifiers, and satisfactory relations with others depends on them receiving our signifiers and responding accordingly in an appropriate form of communication, and vice versa. Our own egos talk to internalized others to maintain and reinforce our sense of reality.

[While I am here, I recently found a section in Lacan (1968), laying out the differences for Lacan between human and animal communication Here are my notes:

With symbols, words transform the subject by acting as a signifier. That's why we need to understand language and not see signs as simply the names for objects as in simple notions of a signal in a code. [However, note 144, page 144 notes that as Lacan pursues the notion of the signifier 'the less one hears about the signified']. This partly explained the recent interest in gestures or body language as supplements to the word. Can we find evidence for this in the behaviour of the honeybee and its dance? This is an example of coding and signalling, but not necessarily of a Language because there is 'the fixed correlation of its signs to the reality which they signify' whereas in a Language signs relate to each other and can show 'lexical sharing out of semantemes' (61). Nor is the message ever retransmitted, but remains fixed, permitting no detachment of the subject. Language by contrast 'defines subjectivity' by necessarily referring to social action or the discourse of the other. It invests a person with new realities by naming them. It is dialectic in this sense, requiring a response from the other even if inverted: in this sense, 'the Word always subjectively includes its own reply' (62). When Language is reduced to the functional, to information, or to the particular, it loses these characteristics. The value of Language lies in the 'intersubjectivity of the "we" which it takes on'. We see this in the residual redundancies of language even that which is intended just to be a matter of communication — what is redundant indicates [something surplus]  the necessary 'resonance in the Word. For the function of Language is not to inform but to revoke' (63). ]

We saw that the linguistic and symbolic world is already structured by social and political relations, though. Power over others depends on being able to monopolize the ‘master signifiers’ mentioned above, one of which is the phallus,and another the ‘name-of-the father’. This seems to support the notion that patriarchy or phallogocentrism is some kind of natural order for Lacan, although there is much debate about whether Lacan was endorsing actual systems – Zizek in particular says he was not, but most people seem to agree there is a lot of ambiguity, where the symbolic phallus and the actual male penis, or the name of the father and actual fathers, seem interchangeable. I must say that when I read the article on the signification of the phallus (Ecrits), I was struck by how much of it seemed to be located in the sexual morality of bourgeois French society at the time, that conventional heterosexual conduct is the norm, for example. Lacan goes on to describe the differences were between men and women, and what forms were taken by marital infidelity in uncritical ways. Existing forms of sexual relations seem to have been taken as universal ones.

However, Lacan’s arguments present a real problem for anyone interested in liberating people from the social order. It is introduced to us in infancy, and preserved at a very deep level of our personality. We structure ourselves and our relations to others through this dominant language We can't rely on altruism, philanthropy, idealism, reform or pedagogy because they are all underpinned by ‘aggressivity’. (Ecrits) The best thing we can do is understand this process to come to terms with it.

A prominent feminist psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger, have looked for a less hierarchical form of relationship with others, in forms of language and meaning construction that were in place before infants make a full entry into dominant language, for example. She says this was suggested by reading Guattari. These infantile relations were more maternal, more reciprocal, more shared. I think Lacanians would have few problems in saying that no access to these forms of communication are possible unless we go through adult language to describe them, in this case the specialist language of the feminist analyst.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the project to get beyond Lacan is more extensive:

(1) To revive forms of language and meaning that coexist alongside the symbolic, denying the symbolic its monopoly. We have looked at animal communication in Plateau 11 on the refrain. We are going to examine what might be called natural forms of communication, in Plateau 3. There are also artificial languages which consists of special signs in internally coherent systems – like maths or computer coding – which do not symbolise or signify conventional social meanings – they are ‘a-signifying’. There is also interest in experimental forms of writing or other arts as shown in Deleuze’s other books on Proust, Francis Bacon, or experimental cinema, and in the jointly-written book on Kafka. Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense explores non-sense like Lewis Carroll’s work and the radically experimental languages of schizophrenics like Artaud or Woolfson.

(2) To restore the proper social dimensions of language in collective assemblages of enunciation, rather than focusing on the dialogues or ‘dialectic’  between self and other.

(3) To work at the virtual or machinic level to show that particular languages are never just logical or self-sufficient universal structures. These structures themselves are the product of deeper sense-making processes acting as abstract machines, producing current models of language or artistic conventions as one concrete option amidst a whole range of possibilities.

Later audio files take up some of these points.


Deleuze, G.  (2008) Proust and Signs.  Translated by Richard Howard, London: Continuum. (my notes)
Deleuze, G. (2006) Two Regimes of Madness: texts and interviews 1975--95. Ed D Lapoujade. Trans. Ames Hodges & Mike Taormina. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series (my notes)
Deleuze, G. (1990) The Logic of Sense, trans Mark Lester, edited by Constantin Boundas, New York: Columbia University Press. (my notes)
Deleuze, G (1989) Cinema 2 -- the time-image, London The Athlone Press. (my notes)
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2012) Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(my notes)
Deleuze G & Guattari F (1984)  Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: The Athlone Press
. (my unreliable notes)
Ettinger, B. (2012) ‘Maternal Subjectivity and the Matrixial Subject’ EGS video (my notes)
Genosko G (Ed) (1996) The Guattari Reader. Oxford: Blackwell. (my notes)
Lacan J (1968) The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans and with notes[and an essay]  by Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press. (my notes)
Levi-Strauss, C (1977) 'Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology', in Structural Anthropology, Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books. (my notes)
Schreber, D. (2000) Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Trans and ed Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter. New York: New York Review of Books.
Zizek S (2004) Organs Without Bodies, London: Routledge. (my notes)