Subject of the Unconscious by Bernard Seynhaeve

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In Seminar XI Lacan revisits the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis through the prism of two new terms that he adds to Freud’s four concepts – the subject and the real – which subvert the concept of the unconscious considerably.

In the first lessons of the Seminar, Lacan begins by resituating the unconscious as structured like a like language. This remains true; the Other is there before the subject speaks. We are inscribed in the symbolic order before coming into the world, and it is this which concerns the unconscious. The Other scene is subjected to laws, to a family history. The importance here, said Lacan, is to realise that before any formation of the subject, of a subject who thinks, this is what counts before him [ça compte avant lui], and it is only then that the subject has to recognise himself there as counting.

However, in this Seminar, Lacan emphasises something else. He points out that signifying articulation has failures which do not obey the laws of language. It is, moreover, when the chain slips or falters that Freud comes to the conclusion – by deduction – of his hypothesis of the unconscious. We do not have proof of the existence of the unconscious. And he notes that the only proof that we have of the existence of the unconscious are these failures – failures in the chain, lapses, parapraxes.

This definition of the unconscious as deduced from the holes in the chain leads Lacan to define a new subject. Which is the subject that can say, “I have three brothers, Paul, Ernest and me”? Is it the I of the enunciation? When the subject produces unexpected meanings, when he realises that what he says is not what he wanted to say, that he does not recognise himself in his statements, this is when a different subject appears: the subject of the enunciation, the subject of the unconscious. It is in these slips of the signifying chain, when meaning slips away that the subject of the unconscious is revealed.

Translated by Joanne Conway