Lacan is one of the more obscure and difficult writers you will encounter while studying Literary Theory. Beginners are not helped by the fact that translations from the French are uniformly difficult and polysyllabic. Below, in some detail, are the outlines of his theories since the original works are recommended only to the very brave. These are some of the central ideas of Lacan's thinking:
1) We only come to know ourselves as a self, as an independent entity distinct from others and the world, through language and other systems of representation. But because of the nature of representation and subjectivity, this self-recognition involves a series of losses, an absence or lack inscribed in the heart of subjectivity.
2) Language precedes and determines subjectivity. Language is not a function of our identities and desires so much as our identities and desires are functions of language.
3) Language genders our identities. This is one of our first losses: a fall from androgynous wholeness into sexual difference ("it's a boy!"). Lacan's mirror stage is best understood as a metaphor for subjectivity. In the mirror stage, the fragmented infant identifies with and desires to be like an image of wholeness (the image in the mirror, the "I" or subject position that implies a coherent, unified, subjectivity). But while images of wholeness give us an image of ourselves as distinct from the world, they never align with us perfectly. There is an inevitable, structural, gap between the truth of fragmentation (a body that constantly takes in and spews out matter, a consciousness riven by representations) and images of self-identity and wholeness.
4) In the Oedipal Complex, as Lacan imagines it, the subject passes from a register of imaginary fusions with the world and with others (The Imaginary) into language (the Symbolic). Lacan almost describes this as a fall from Eden presence and fusion with the world into a post-lapsarian world of subject and object, division and desire.
5) Lacan's notion of desire is, at its heart, a desire for wholeness--a "hole in the self" that the subject attempts to close through an endless, metonymic chain of supplements: the perfect car, the perfect boyfriend, a tenure track job, etc. But as soon as one supplement is acquired, desire moves onto something else. Desire is a (representational) itch that can never truly be scratched.
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