Jacques Lacan, who is often referred to as the “French Freud” transposed Freudian concepts into the realm of Saussurean structural linguistics, focussing on the operations of the process of signification, instead of the human mind as such. Lacanian reading attempted to correct the flaws of Freudian theory, especially the privilege that it accords to the ego in self-determination. Lacan’s work called Return to Freud brought a post-structuralist turn to psychoanalysis, and underscoring his emphasis on language, he famously remarked, “The unconscious is structured like a language ” While Freud assumed the human consciousness as pre-existent to language, Lacan undermined this belief and proposed that human consciousness is constituted by language.
Lacan also reformulated Freud’s concept of the psychosexual development and the Oedipus complex into the distinction between the pre-linguistic “Imaginary” stage and the linguistic “Symbolic” stage. In the “Imaginary” stage, there is no distinction between the subject and the object, the Self and the Other In between the Imaginary and the Symbolic stage, occurs what Lacan calls the Mirror Stage, when the infant identifies with its image
In the mirror, and this marks the beginning of the identification of the Self with respect to the Other. In the Symbolic stage, the infant already internalises the inherited system of difference, as it learns to accept its pre-determined position in the system of linguistic oppositions such as man/woman, adult/child, father/son, mother/daughter and so on. This symbolic realm, according to Lacan, is the realm of the law of the father, where the phallus (symbolic) is the privileged signifier that establishes the modes of the other signifiers.
Parallelly, Lacan also reformulates Freud’s concept of displacement and condensation, the defence mechanisms that create the dream work, into the linguistic figures of speech conceptualised by Roman Jakobson — metaphor and metonymy. According to Lacan, all processes of linguistic expression and interpretation, driven by the desire for the lost and unattainable wholeness, moves incessantly in an unending chain of signifiers, without any possibility of arriving at a stable signified (what Derrida calls the transcendental signified). This idea is illustrated in Lacan’s paper The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious, in which he analyses Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Purloined Letter as an allegory of the workings of the signifier.
Lacan’s notions of the inalienable split or “difference”, that inhabits the Self, and the endless chain of displacements in the quest for meaning, has made him a prominent reference in post-structuralist theories. His distinction between the pre-Oedipal pre-linguistic Imaginary and the Plallocentric Symbolic stage has been much exploited by French feminists like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.