These two excellent lectures on Lacan  are from the web, and I've just got the attribution! Hooray!

They are from Tom Davis, at Birmingham University and you can access his site at

 They are both invaluable for background work on Carter's 'Nights at the Circus'.

Many thanks to Tom's daughter, Naomi, for emailing me with the information.

Lacan and Deconstruction


1. Introduction

This lecture is difficult: it is hard because Lacan is hard, and because in order to understand him you have to open your minds a little. The concepts in it are not in themselves complicated, but what they do is, they deliberately defy common-sense. And so you reject them, and the easiest way to reject them is not to understand them.

It's a strange feeling: you think you've got it, it's clear, you understand it, you think of something else and then come back to what you though you had clearly in your mind and--it's gone.

If you persevere, however, there is a reward. Those who follow this way of reading literature, essentially the Lacanian way, have a powerful and entirely novel way of looking at literary texts; and, as an added bonus, they believe that what they are doing is very very important. You will see.

In order to make it easier for you I am going do two things. The first is, I'm going to spend much of this lecture not talking about Lacan, but about some of the basic concepts that he uses in order to build his theories. So this lecture is important, because it functions not just as an introduction to Lacan but also to the whole of French literary theory. But first, I want to give you a sense of Lacan, so you know what we're up against.

2. Lacan speaks

2.1 I, truth, will speak

Here is Lacan:

he is answering the question, What is Truth? With characteristic arrogance, he answers as if he, himself, were truth. If you can't follow this, don't feel bad.

Men, I am giving you the secret. I, truth, will speak. Whether you flee me in fraud, or think to entrap me in error, I will reach you in the misapprehension against which you have no refuge. In that place where the most caustic speech reveals a slight hesitation, it is lacking in perfidy--I am now publicly announcing the fact--and it would from then on be rather trickier to pretend that nothing had happened, in good, or for that matter, bad company...

In any case, is it not enough, to judge of your defeat, to see me escape first from the keep of the fortress in which you are so sure you have me secured by situating me, not in yourselves, but in being itself? I wander about in what you regard as being the least true in essence: in the dream, in the way the most Gongoresque conceit, the nonsense of the most grotesque pun defies sense, in chance, and not in its law but in its contingency, and I never do more to change the face of the world than when I give it the profile of Cleopatra's nose.


2.2 The unconscious is to be found in...

What does this mean? It means, the unconscious is found in dreams and slips of the tongue.

2.3 Why read Lacan?

The first question is: if that's what he's saying, why doesn't he say so? If he's so perverse, so difficult, then what is the point of studying Lacan? I can tell you the answer to that quite quickly. For contemporary literary criticism, Lacan is more important than Freud, and Jung; in fact, he is one of the two or three most important influences on current literary criticism. I find him infuriating, incomprehensible, incredibly perverse, but also, in glimpses, very very illuminating. He is a trickster: a jester; a genius.

Lacan single-handedly placed psychoanalysis at the exact centre of French intellectual life. His influence is everywhere: you need to know about him.

3. Lacan's obscurity

3.1 The unbearable is hard to understand

So: why is it that Lacan is so difficult, so obscure?

Well, think back to Freud. The entire point of Freud's life work was that he was exposing to us the unbearable. What he had to tell us about was the unconscious, and the reason why unconscious material is unconscious is because we can't face it, and so repress it: the unconscious contains the unbearable. If not that, then nothing.

So the question should be, in fact, why is Freud so easy to understand? Why don't we reject it? Why don't we react to what he says with horror and incomprehension? If Freud is true, then the unbearable ought to be hard to understand.

What, in Lacan's case, is this unbearable topic? For Freud, you remember, the unbearable is the sexual. In my experience, students don't on the whole find that particularly convincing. On the whole, students seem to find the sexual interesting, even quite possibly entertaining. Well, Lacan deals with the sexual, yes, but that is not for him the deepest level. What he does is this: he attacks the solidity of all that we can see, and, worse than that, all that we think we are. For Lacan

Language is what we use to construct the world

Language is what we use to construct ourselves

Language is completely inadequate for both those tasks


This is the bad news. Nothing is real. Nothing is solid. You are not real. This, he would say, is unbearable: and therefore we reject and repress it: we can't afford to understand it.

3.2 The discourse of the unconscious

Moreover in order to express the unconscious it is necessary, Lacan would say, to be incomprehensible. In fact, it's inevitable. When the unconscious speaks, it does not make sense, by definition: its language is not that of the everyday world of common sense. The unconscious speaks nonsense.

It must, if you think about it. It is unconscious: it is utterly different. It is the voice of the other, frightening, mysterious, awe-inspiring, shattering, strange: all of those things. Not, repeat not, rational, commonsensical, easy to follow.

Dreams are nonsense. Psychotics talk nonsense. The suffering of neurotics does not make sense. So in order to let the unconscious speak Lacan felt he needed to speak with the voice of the unconscious: to talk a kind of signifying nonsense. Lacan, you have to understand, was a kind of standup comedian, an artist, a juggler, a showman; because he was French he could unite those roles with being, at the same time, an intellectual. He tried to make himself, at the same time, both clear and unclear, so that at the edge of meaning, in puns, allusions, jokes, logical contradictions, language games, glimpses of the truth can come through.

3.3 Lecturing on Lacan

This creates a problem for anyone whose job it is to explain Lacan. How can I make Lacan speak to you without betraying everything he stands for? How can I clarify and elucidate this stuff, try to make it comprehensible, without by that very act destroying it? Well, the answer is, I can't. All I can hope to do is give you a basis from which to approach the man himself. To turn to Lacan, to leave this lecture behind.

Now: the influences of Lacan.

4. Lacan = Freud + Saussure + Dada

You can say that Lacan has three influences: Freud, Saussure, and Dada. Freud, I have covered. Saussure was a Swiss linguist who, in a series of lectures published in 1915, laid down the foundations of modern linguistics. Dada was a movement, also Swiss in origin, founded, oddly enough, at just the same time, in 1916; it consisted of some remarkably crazy and irresponsible people, and it gave birth to the artistic movement known as surrealism. Many of Lacan's friends were surrealists.

So first I will tell you a little about Dada and the surrealists, so that you can see how Lacan gets away with being as difficult and irresponsible as he is; then I will spend a quite a lot of time explaining Saussure, who is crucial not just to Lacan but to all of the French exponents of the new critical theory. Then I will take you in the direction beyond Saussure that Lacan himself took: towards the deconstruction of everyday reality, and of the ego itself. To do that I will look at the work of a colleague and on and off friend of Lacan's, Louis Althusser, whose theories, because he was not a surrealist, are easier to understand, and usefully parallel to Lacan's. All of this is essential preparation. Next week we will face the man himself: Lacan, and I will show you some ways of applying his theories to literature. But now, Dada.

5. Dada

Dada was a literary and artistic movement that began in Switzerland in 1916. It speedily moved to Paris, where it gave birth to Surrealism in the early 1920's and then died.

Dada believed that art told lies; it believed that the truth was in what art did not say. Surrealism believed that only in pure spontaneity would the truth arise, because the only truth was in the subconscious mind; therefore only by a process very like free association could the truth be found. If this sounds familiar, it should do: the father of Dada was Freud.

Realism, in art, is a lie. It does not show what is there, it creates it: realism is an illusion. The camera always lies. Here is one of the most famous surrealist pictures: the caption says 'This is not an apple'. But it looks like an apple: so why isn't it? First, obviously, because it's a painting; second, less obviously, because it wants to disturb your trust in apples. It asks the question: what is real? And so did Lacan, using the same kind of jokey, skilful, perverse method. As we shall see.

After Dada, Saussure.

6. Saussure

6.1 Saussure's radicalism

It is quite possible that Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, who was a fairly barbaric individual, and Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, and by all accounts a rather civilised and scholarly person, could have run into each other in the street in Zurich. They would have had very little to say to each other, I imagine; nor could they have imagined that a union between the two of them could have given birth to Lacan. But it did. And it is probable that the more radical contribution came from Saussure.

What Saussure did was to deconstruct the sign. What is a sign?

6.2 What is a sign?

This is a sign. When I say the word 'fish', immediately there comes into your mind a concept. What I am doing is making a noise, 'fish', and that's all, but there is an immediate, instant, intrinsic link in your mind and in my mind between the noise and the concept: we experience them to be the same thing. That marriage, that union, noise+concept, is the sign. A sign is a linguistic noise that evokes a concept. 'Fish'. Sign = noise + concept.

This is very simple, but also very important: it is basic to the way language works. What Saussure did was simple too: he took the sign apart. But this, though simple, had very very powerful consequences: from this deconstruction of the sign he arrived at the following famous proposition: 'language is a system of differences with no fixed terms'. What does that mean? Well, let us split the noise from the concept, and see.

6.3 The signifier

So, first the noise.

'Fish'. This he called the 'signifier': the sign-maker, the thing that initiates the sign-process. The signifier. Now, let us take that apart.

6.4 Phonemes

What is this signifier, 'fish'? Considered purely as a signifying noise, it consists of three elements: a 'f' noise, an 'i' noise, and a 'sh' noise. Those elements are called 'phonemes'. Now, if I change one of those elements, a different sign is initiated: wish, dish, fit, and so on. English has a little more than 60 phonemes. That's it. That's all you need to create all the words, or rather all the signifiers, 4 million or so signifying noises, that make up the English language.

6.5 A system of differences

What we can do with these phonemes is to put them together into a chart:

wish, dish, fish, and so on. Obviously, what we've got here is a system. And the most important thing about the elements of the system is that they differ, said Saussure. When I say 'fish', in order for you to understand me all I have to get across is what I'm not saying. That I'm not saying 'dish', or 'wish', or 'fit'. The system, on the level of the signifier, on the noise level, is a system of differences.

6.6 The signified

Now, look at the other half of the sign: the concept half.

This is called the 'signified'.

6.7 The sliding of the signifiers

Here are two interesting things about the signified. One is, in order to talk about it, I have to use signifiers. In order to discuss language, you must use language. Obviously. But this means that you can't get outside the sign: language is a closed system.

To talk about a signified, I use a signifier, which has a signified, and to talk about that I have to use another signifier, words to explain words to explain words ... and so on, until I run out of language or loop back and start again. This is what Lacan calls 'the sliding of the signifiers'.

6.8 No fixed terms

The other interesting thing about the signified is that although the marriage between signifier and signified is so tight in our minds, the actual relationship has no basis. It is baseless.

There is no essential reason why the cold-blooded thing that swims should be evoked by that noise, 'fish', and no other. It's just an arbitrary arrangement we have because we are all members of the group known as English-speakers.

It needn't be like that. Look: supposing I said that from now on, I will refer to the cold-blooded thing that swims as a 'bok'.

This might take a little getting used to, but it wouldn't be hard, and soon we would all be using and understanding the word 'bok' without any trouble. And that would be a purely arbitrary arrangement we have because we are all members of the group known as people-who-went-to-the-Lacan-lecture. And if we were really proud, or defensive, about being in this group we might develop a whole arbitrary set of signifiers we could use together to announce and emphasise our membership of that group, and everyone else would feel mysteriously deprived. You can all think of sub-cultures that have their own private languages. Los Angeles street gangs. Rastafarians. Bibliographers. Lacanians.

But the point is that the relationship between the two halves of the signs of these languages is arbitrary. There is no essential relationship between the noise 'bok', or the noise 'fish', and the concept they express.

And look at the arbitrary bunch of creatures that we class under the term fish. A goldfish is a fish. A great white shark is a fish. The white meat in batter that you buy ready-cooked with chips is a fish. It goes on being a fish while you eat it, and then it stops being a fish. We class all these items as fish. And a whale is not a fish. A whale stopped being a fish in the eighteenth century.

Obviously, what puts things into the class 'fish' is convention, common agreement amongst users of the same language, whether the language group is as enormous as all users of English, or as small as those-who-went-to-the-Lacan-lecture; it's a cultural convention. There might be another culture that thinks that the dead thing with the chips on your plate has stopped being a fish, and become something else, just as we think that the dead sheep on your plate that you are about to eat is not a sheep at all, it's stopped being that entirely, it's become mutton. Arbitrarily, at least as far as language is concerned.

And that's what the second half of Saussure's saying means: language is a system of differences without fixed terms.

6.9 Literature is a beautiful trick

You might say, so what? So what is important about that? Well, let's try another signifier. Think of a cat. Any cat, but a particular cat. A cat you know, or have known.

Now, think of the word "cat". That noise. "Cat". Now try and imagine the distance, the incredible gulf, between that noise "cat" and the cat you know. It's immense, isn't it? The one hardly captures a particle of the actuality of the other. If you can hold that distinction, between the actual cat and the empty word, in your minds, you are prising the sign apart, and are getting a glimpse of how completely language is in fact alienated from the actuality of the world. The fact is that language cannot adequately describe the world. Not even a small fraction of it. There is a gulf between the world and language, between the animal and the word, and we are not aware of this gulf until we prise the sign apart.

But if words can't capture the world, what about literature? Because that is literature's main claim for our attention, that it delivers to us the world seen anew, that it is the prime agent for us of the actuality of the world.

This claim is false. When we read a description, however brilliant, say in a poem, say about a cat, the brilliance that makes us catch our breath and wonder is a brilliance in language: a pattern of words. The actuality it points us towards is always already outside language, beyond language, not to be captured. It is a trick of words, an illusion. Literature is a beautiful trick. Like a surrealist painting.

So that's quite an uncomfortable realisation. But what makes it worse is that we rely on language, this imperfect instrument, to construct the world for us: we can't do without it, we do almost everything with it.

7. We see the world through language

7.1 The world deconstructed

When the two halves of the sign have been sprung apart, we enter a strange world. Or rather, we stay in exactly the same world, we inhabit the same reality, but it becomes strange, unfixed, sliding. In order to see that, to really see it, we have to travel, so that we can come back and see where we live as if we didn't live there.

7.2 Love

A good way of seeing something of how words dominate and deceive us is to look at the word love. You could put up a good case for the idea that this word, 'love', these three phonemes, is the most important word in the English language. So let us look at how another culture, another language, deals with it.

The Tibetans have a language that is extremely well adapted for the description of psychological states. Since much of the adult population in traditional Tibet lived in monasteries and spent most of their time examining the nature of mind, it was necessary for them to develop this language; and it allowed them to perceive and recognise things that are obscure or not meaningful to us.

Tibetans are very interested in the concept of Love. They have 14 words for it. I am just going to deal with 2 of those. Thugs rTse Ba, and 'Tsal Ba. The first of these is classically defined as follows:

To love: to entirely wish for the happiness of another being or beings.


The second, 'Tsal Ba', means:

To love: to wish to possess, to desire, to be attached to.


What's interesting about these is that they are opposites: the two words have meanings that are precisely 180 degrees apart.

Now, from that Tibetan perspective, if we look back at our own word, love, it can be seen in a new way. Those two words for love, roughly altruistic love and selfish love, are collapsed together in the English word. In English you can say 'I love you' meaning 'I wish for your happiness', or you can say 'I love you' meaning 'I want something from you'. The latter is a very common use of the word, in my experience.

In fact what usually happens is that the word carries both meanings. The two quite distinct senses of the word are collapsed together, the self-seeking sense gains authority from the unselfish sense: you must give me what I want, because I love you, and love is good, isn't it? Hence the immediate feeling of guilt, surely known to us all, when someone says "I love you", and you don't say "I love you" back.

This ambiguity runs through the whole of the culture: did Othello, for instance, love Desdemona? Yes, he must have done, that's why he murdered her. And so on. I expect you can think up examples for yourselves. And none of this is a problem for the Tibetans, simply because they have some extra words in the language.

7.3 Words fail me

Let me give you another, very simple, example of how words describe, and dominate, and fail us. I will just read you a short poem. It's called 'Words fail me'.

Dear Sirs man to man manpower craftsman working men the thinking man the man in the street fellow countrymen the history of mankind one-man show man in his wisdom statesman forefathers masterful masterpiece old masters the brotherhood of man Liberty Equality Fraternity sons of free men faith of our fathers god the father god the son yours fraternally amen words fail me

8. Language creates us

8.1 The ego is no longer master in its own house

I hope I have shown you how the language that we use constructs the reality that we see, and how in doing so it can deceive, dominate, oppress us. There remains one final Lacanian scandal: that the we who do the perceiving are also constructed by language: there is no self; it is a linguistic construct.

It was Freud who said this first: he was conscious of being, in fact he felt honoured to be, in a line of iconoclasts, whose work was to dethrone us, the human beings, from our feeling of being at the centre of the universe: the paragon of animals, the centre of creation. So Copernicus and Galileo showed that the earth went round the sun, and not the other way around. Darwin showed that we are not the lords of creation, but simply a rather specialised form of ape. And Freud showed, he said, that the ego is no longer the master of his own house: that there is another mind, inside our own, that we are unaware of, and which dictates a great deal of what we do and think. The ego is no longer the master of his own house.

Lacan goes further than this: goes as far as it is possible to go. He dethrones the subject entirely. In order to follow him into this inner sanctum, it seems to me that the easiest thing to go to Paris: to work with the theory of a colleague and (on and off) friend of Lacan's named Althusser.

9. Althusser: ideology and language

9.1 the State apparatuses

Althusser (in 1968) asked this question: what is it that maintains the stability of a given society? What is it that keeps people under control? He gave two answers. In some societies, repressive societies, people are kept under control by the obvious force of the state: he called this the Repressive State Apparatus. This has to be obvious so that people can be afraid of it, and so stay in line. The army. The Police. The Secret Police.

But in Western affluent societies this degree of control is much less obvious. There is, of course, an element of direct repression against those who get out of line, but those cases, where the police or the army are seen in an obvious way to be repressive, are rare, and get into the newspapers. On the whole. So what is it that keeps us in line?

He decided that there was another kind of state apparatus for control and he called it the Ideological State Apparatus. This has the effect of making us want to stay in line; we enjoy and willingly co-operate with our conformity. Why? Because it is common sense to do so; because it is the way things are; because we believe ideology to be true. Ideology, said Althusser, is not true: ideology is a false set of ideas operating in a given society in order to keep the people in line and serve the interests of the ruling class in that society. This sounds like propaganda, but there is a crucial difference. Propaganda is obvious; it is felt to be a lie; ideology is felt, at a deep level to be true. To be common sense. To be the way things are. It is invisible.

So how does ideology get to be propagated? Said Althusser, through the Ideological State Apparatuses. What are they? They are language devices: discourses. Such as? The Church. The schools. The Newspapers. The TV. The Theatre. The novels. The bill-boards. The Department of English at the University of Birmingham. Here we are, Althusser would say, in this lecture room, in the very heart of the ideology industry.

So how does ideology work? He would say, ideology is like the air we breathe. It is everywhere, so that we can't see it. It is buried deep in language and felt, at the deepest level to be true. Ideology tells us who we are: it names us into our very existence. How does this happen? He expressed it by a pun in French.

9.2 Ideology names us

In French when you call yourself something, appeler, je m'appelle Tom, you do two things: you name yourself, and you call out to yourself: it's the same word, appeler. So when someone calls out to me in the corridor, Tom, in French they are simultaneously calling me, appeler, and naming me, appeler; and it has an electric effect. You're walking down the corridor, you hear your name called out, you jump to attention. Althusser would say, at that instant you become yourself: I become "Tom." Now ideology works like but at a much deeper level: it names us invisibly, internally, at a level so deep that we can't see it or feel it or hear it, but nonetheless it is there, everywhere: it is our truth. It is the truth of us: it names us into existence and tells us, not just who we are, but that we are. Not appeler, but interpeller. Naming within. Outside that false interpellation, we have no existence. There is no 'I'. Said Althusser. And said Lacan.

10 Ways round language

10.1 Religion

This is all very bleak; however, it is not the end of the story. There are ways of dealing with this problem. One of them, which I will not discuss here, is religion. Many religions have somewhere in them the perception that language deceives us about the world, that the ego is an inadequate construct. There is in these religions a rich repertoire of ways of subverting the lies of commonsense experience, the oppressions of normality: in Sufism, in Buddhism, in parts of Hinduism, in Taoism--just to name a few. I mention this in order to make clear that this problem is not a new one: it was not invented by fashionable Frenchmen in the late 60's, but is as old as the oldest written records.

More directly relevant to us in the English Department and to this lecture are three methods: psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and, surprisingly, the study of literature.

10.2 Psychoanalysis

For Lacan, psychoanalysis was the way to deal with this problem. He thought that neurosis was a result of a disruption, a deception, in Language, and that language could be turned against itself, in order to heal. I will say more about this in the next lecture.

10.3 Deconstruction

This use of language in psychoanalysis we would call deconstructive. And deconstruction is not only a psychoanalytic tool.

Here is the good news: there is a peculiarity in language which allows us to escape from its complete domination by it. The peculiarity is this: although Language is almost all we have to think with, it so happens that we can turn it upon itself: it is possible to catch it in the act of deception. To interrogate it. It's not easy, because you have to find some way of getting outside what you normally take for granted, of escaping from common sense.

One way of getting outside language is to look at the way different cultures operate in language. Sometimes we can use this insight to look back on our own with new eyes: to see the tricks in action. And having seen the trick operating, we can ask why? Where did this come from? As I tried to show with the word "love."

You can take this further: if, for instance, we ask why English has this ambiguity about the word love, the answer is very interesting. It has a history. I think it probably derives from Plato, and came into English via Christianity. There's a good book about it: Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being; a classic work of literary theory. That would be a good place to start. And from this start you could go very deeply into the nature of our culture, the way we are made, the way we see things: the history of our preconceptions. Deconstruction is like opening a door into ourselves: behind that door, another door, and another, leading us deeper into knowledge.

Deconstruction is a method of interpretation: it looks beneath the surface, as does psychoanalysis; it refuses to be deceived. It takes the symptom and looks for the truth behind it, the truth that may be unconscious. It refuses to be tricked. It will not let language get away with fooling us. It looks profoundly into the way the world works in language, to clear away illusion, to come to a truth. It seeks to make us free.

10.4 Literature

But as well as looking into other languages and cultures, there is a more convenient area where we can look, one much closer at hand. We can look at literature. Literature, which is made up of language, embodies the peculiarity that language has, that it can be turned against itself in order to show it in action. We can use deconstruction to examine, you might say, the unconscious of literature.

Literature is made up of language, and therefore a trick; but it is also characteristic of literature that it pushes at the barriers of language to free itself from them, restlessly, constantly, always feeling and testing the constraints of words. You could say that Literature tries to deconstruct itself.

So literature presents us with language and its deceptions, captured and laid out for us to test and question, conveniently packaged in book form; but also it leads us itself towards a way out. Yes, literature is a trick; but the very trickiness of literature is what, you could say, does the trick. We as critics can deconstruct language through literature because that deconstruction is what literature itself does: by puns, jokes, tricks and distortions of language: all those literary devices. Metaphor, for instance, the essential device of literature, is exactly a way of tricking language into saying that which cannot be said.

This view suddenly transforms the study of literature. No longer a harmless activity, saying nice things about nice books: but central, combative, subversive, fascinating, and, above all, important. Very, very important.