As it is understood today, the notion of the signifier is attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of linguistics and semiology and author of the influential Course of General Linguistics (1907/1960). For Saussure, the linguistic sign was a mental entity with two aspects: the signified (the "concept") and the signifier (the mental impression of the sound). The relationship between these two aspects, which Saussure compared to the recto and verso of a sheet of paper, was considered "arbitrary" in that what linked signifier to signified was merely a convention: the signifier "sister" and the signifier "soeur," for instance, both refer to the same signified element, even though they belong to two different linguistic systems. At the same time, signifier and signified were connected syntagmatically and paradigmatically, and these connections—and not the designation of a referent or external object—were the basis of the meaning of statements. In the wake of Saussure, structural linguistics from Roman Jakobson toÉmile Benveniste built extensively on his work. This account of the structure of the sign supplied the chief algorithm of the science of semiology, whose mandate was to assess and decipher all the sign systems generated by a given society, linguistics being merely a part of this whole—and a model for it.
Critical thinking about the signifier centered at first on what was called the priority of the signifier relative to the signified. Inasmuch as the material nature of signifiers was highly diverse (including sounds, images, objects, text, and so on), semiology opened onto all fields of expression—art, fashion, discourse—to the point where it came to be defined as the science of the signifier, or rather, of signifying practices (Kristeva). Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology is a magisterial demonstration of this linguistics-inspired approach.
In psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan, invoking both Freud and Saussure, as well as linguistic and anthropological structuralism, took the discussion beyond the signifier to what he called "the signifying chain." Deeming that "the unconscious is structured like a language," Lacan borrowed the methodology and operating concepts of Saussurian linguistics and applied them in an idiosyncratic way to psychoanalysis. In his view the discovery of the unconscious coincided with the discovery of a subject whose position, decentered (or "ex-centric") relative to consciousness, was established solely by virtue of the retroactive operation of certain signifiers. Accordingly, the definition of the signifier as a component in a signifying chain was worked out on the basis of three notions:
- Vacillation : The signifier can fulfill its purpose of engendering meaning only by ceding its place to another signifier with which it is linked in the chain of signifiers.
- The subject : Located nowhere before the advent of the signifier, nor anywhere outside the signifier, the subject receives its place from the signifier, yet can occupy its own place only as a function of the lack whose place a signifier fills; the subject thus becomes the extra signifier that supports enunciation as it proceeds. This is the basis of Lacan's formula according to which the order of the signifier is founded on the fact that "a signifier is what represents a subject to another signifier" (Écrits ).
- The object : The object is that towards which discourse qua desire is directed; it governs the signifying chain and its operation. The object of enunciation too is always decentered relative to the one designated by an utterance. That object is also always lacking, for the subject is never finished with the work of signifying that desire entails. For Lacan, that work is orthonormal, both vertically by virtue of metaphor (condensation or substitution of signifiers), and horizontally by virtue of metonymy (displacement or contiguity of signifiers).
The idea of the signifier is cardinal in Lacan's theory, determining as it does the very definition of the unconscious, of the subject, of the oedipal law, of castration, and of desire. It lies at the intersection of a reformulation of the Oedipus complex conceived of as the subjugation of the subject to the law (of language) and a consideration specific to Lacan (and only hinted at by Freud) of the effects of speech on the subject as revealed by analysis. To say that the unconscious is a "signifying chain" is the same thing as saying that the "symbolic function" is what superimposes the rule of culture (Oedipus) on the rule of nature. The Other was viewed by Lacan from the outset as the logical empty place where the laws of language and speech are laid down; he described the Other as a "treasure trove of signifiers." The fact remains that Lacan's system retained aspects not subsumed by the linguistic realm: the "subject" (of the unconscious) qua "signifier effect," the object of desire as alien to the sphere of need and even to that of demand, desire as inseparable from speech effects. This independent realm of the signifier was anchored to that "pure signifier," the Name-of-the-Father: the three clinical categories of neurosis, psychosis, and perversion were viewed as three possible variants of the relationship of the subject of the unconscious to this paternal signifier. Later in his work, Lacan would in fact insist that his teaching was not akin to linguistics; before his final "knot" theory, he proposed an account of "the letter" as an element linking the three orders of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic—as distinct from his first theory of the signifier, which seemed to concern itself solely with the order of the Symbolic.
Saussure's account of the structure of the sign (signifier/signified) and Lacan's thinking on the signifier prompted a philosophical critique of the notion of the signifier that took Freud's idea of "facilitation" as its starting-point and developed the concept of "trace" (Derrida). The resulting deconstruction of the Saussurian sign led in turn to the deconstruction of metaphysics and opened up the question of the truth of meaning from the point of view of Derrida's "grammatology"—a perspective of distinct relevance to psychoanalytical interpretation. In the light of psychoanalytical discourse, though also in that of poetic language, Julia Kristeva has suggested another way of understanding the Saussurian signifier: first, in "semiotic" terms, taking into account the infralinguistic indications of the drive, as discernible in the language of poetry and also in the discourse of psychotic or depressed patients—indications excluded from the realm of the signifier as understood by Lacan; and, secondly, in "symbolic" terms, opening up the dimension of signs and syntax.
See also: Economic point of view; Intergenerational; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Sense/nonsense; Signifier/signified; Symbol; Symbolism; Thing-presentation; Word-presentation.
Derrida, Jacques. (1974). Of grammatology (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. (Original work published 1967)
Kristeva, Julia. (1974). La Révolution du langage poétique. L 'Avant-gardeà la fin du dix-neuvième siècle—Lautréamont et Mallarmé. Paris: Seuil.
Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1966)
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1960). Course in general linguistics (Wade Baskin, Trans.). London: Peter Owen. (Original work published 1907)