Four Discourses

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In his seminar "The Other Side of Psychoanalysis," Jacques Lacan introduced four types of discourses. The discourses are the discourse of the master, the discourse of the hysteric, the discourse of the university, and the discourse of the analyst. They represent a matrix in which everything comes in fours. The discourses too are made up of four elements: S1, the master signifier; S2, knowledge; a, surplus enjoyment; and S̷, the subject. Their positions above and below the bar on either side of the diagram represent four different values or functions: the agent, the other, the production, and truth.

In this fourfold structure, manipulating the minimal signifying chain, S1fiS2, is both necessary and sufficient to represent the subject, S̷, in relation to both the big Other (the unconscious) and the small other (the object a as the object cause of desire) (Fig. 1).

In each discourse, the agent addresses an other, and the truth that the discourse seeks is attained through a certain production. Insofar as there is a connection between S1 and S2, between the master-signifier and knowledgea connection that depends on the essential mediation of speechthe subject is separated from the production of the discourse, and this results in a discourse that is always inadequate. In this case an unbridgeable gap separates the subject S̷ and the object a.

If we take the discourse of the master as the starting point, the four terms generate each of the other discourses by making four successive ninety-degree turns in a clockwise direction. As each term takes the place of the agent, it assumes the dominant position and gives meaning and value to the discourse it generates. S1, the master-signifier, in the dominant position gives rise to discourse of the master. S2, knowledge, in that position produces discourse of the university. S̷, the subject, as agent leads to discourse of the hysteric. In this case, the symptomatic signifier affects and marks the subject so that the subject's body displays the symptom and speaks metaphorically in the place of the repressed signifier. And finally, a, the object of desire, in the dominant position produces discourse of the analyst. But it is not because analysis is the "science of desire" that the analyst has direct access to the object a. If the analyst can assume the place of the agent and thus to know something about the patient's desire, it is only because the analyst is not duped into believing the agent's discourse. Something of the truth of the patient's desire has a chance to emerge within the framework of the treatment through the transference and by means of interpretation.

These four different social bonds constitute what Lacan claims is an essential support for communication. The four discourses go beyond speech, but "without going beyond language's actual effects" (Lacan, 1998, p. 93).

In the 1960s Lacan theorized the four discourses on the basis of a minute study of the social field that each discourse both reveals and conceals, because he wanted to ensure the transmission of psychoanalysis. He certainly knew that the discourses of the master and the university had existed for a much longer time. He credited Freud with having discovered the discourse of the hysteric, but argued that Freud had not known how to define the discourse of the analyst. So Lacan attempted to establish this discourse by defining its occurrence and its effects and by positing its limits so that analysis could be developed in a community and be taught in the community on both the theoretical and clinical levels. Lacan considered the discourse of the analyst to be one of his original contributions to psychoanalysis.

JoËl Dor

See also: Matheme; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Seminar, Lacan's.


Lacan, Jacques. (1970). Radiophonie. Scilicet, 2-3, 55-99.

. (1991). Le séminaire, livre XVII: L'envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970). Paris: Seuil.

. (1998). On feminine sexuality, the limits of love and knowledge: The seminar, book XX, encore 1972-1973 (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.