Emaline Friedman – Arrested by the Preface: Lacanian Discourse Analysis and the Speaking Subject

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Arrested by the Preface: Lacanian Discourse Analysis and the Speaking Subject

Emaline Friedman
University of West Georgia

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The following is an account of how prefaces, or utterances meant to preempt further speech, aid the development of Lacanian discourse analysis. The preface is conceptualized as a moment of speaking where the Imaginary and Symbolic are recoiled, giving the discourse analyst insight into the truth of the speaking subject. This point is articulated alongside an explication of a few concepts in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory that render the preface important. Other facets of Lacanian discourse analysis are approached along the way, including methodological woes, aims, and the challenges it faces as a result of (1) emerging, chronologically, amongst an array of discourse analytic perspectives hailing from psychology’s turn-to-language and (2) positing a wholly different conception of the speaking subject from those other discourse analytic perspectives.



The following is an account of the “preface”, a moment in speech when a subject qualifies or preempts a longer, forthcoming utterance, from the perspective of Lacanian Discourse Analysis (e.g., Cuéllar 2010; Frosh, 2002; Frosh, Phoenix & Pattman, 2003; Hook, 2003, 2008; Parker, 2005a, 2010). The thesis of this paper is that the preface is a useful key in guiding the execution of Lacanian discourse analyses. First, I will elaborate a few constituents of a Lacanian theory of discourse relevant for the purposes of this piece, the Other as a series of paradoxes, the Imaginary register, and the Symbolic register as a system of exchange. These three concepts will be crucial in recognizing the value for Lacanian discourse analysts of employing the preface as an analytic tool. Then, the function of the preface will be considered through a discourse psychological perspective as a means for distinguishing a Lacanian notion of subjectivity through discourse from more common conceptions of subjectivity in discourse analysis. Against this backdrop, the preface will be characterized as a moment in speech that guides toward a type of analysis in line with Lacan’s conception of discourse and the types of subjectivity and sociality that it entails.

By constituting a moment of suspension where the Imaginary and the Symbolic are recoiled together, the preface will shed light on the constitution of the speaking subject as locatable in the structural elements of his or her speech. In addition to its utility in analyzing actual speech, the preface will function to urge discourse analysts to continually question their own versions of speakers’ subjectivities. Theorized as both an analytic guidepost for the discourse analyst and vulnerable moment of suspension for the speaking subject, the preface is used here as a methodological development for Lacanian discourse analysts as well as an inevitable, structural component of speech that affirms the emergence of the speaking subject between necessity and nonsense. Further, it will be shown to provide a strong foundation for unpacking stylistic nuances and quirks that adequately addresses the complex situation of the speaking subject and his or her implication in and through the structure of speech.

Throughout the piece, I will also use the preface as a platform for discussing a few concerns, values, and aims of Lacanian discourse analysis. Since acts of prefacing are typically of more structural import than they are rich with what discourse analysts may be tempted to deem ‘meaningful content’, the preface is as valuable a tool in the practice of Lacanian discourse analysis as it is in theorizing its commitments. These commitments, to certain notions of subjectivity, truth, and knowledge, will be cast in distinction from the commonplace assumptions of discourse psychology. The vaguely comparative flavor of this paper is not meant to contribute to the discussion of the different merits and pitfalls of each tradition. I am more interested here in setting the scene of discourse analytic research in psychology in order to invite thought about the execution of Lacanian discourse analyses via what will be proposed as a useful tool to tailor to this particular style of discourse analytic research.


The Imaginary

For the purposes of explaining some of the theoretical differences between Lacanian discourse analysis and other discourse analytic traditions that borrow from Anglo-American psychological concepts, I will give a brief overview of the Imaginary, one of the three registers on which Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is centered. The “Imaginary” in Lacan completes the trifecta of registers, “Real”, “Symbolic”, and the “Imaginary”. Each of these dimensions functions in total complementarity with the others, serving, in concert, the topology of the Lacanian subject. The Imaginary will be unpacked apart from the Real, not included in this piece, so that the elements that most impact the considerations of discourse analysis are made salient. The Symbolic will be referenced heavily here before a full elucidation in the next section because neither of these registers temporally precedes another in speech production. Taking each register as a separate starting point for discussing their interrelation will illuminate different facets of this interrelation. It will become clear that the subject of Lacanian discourse analysis is the subject of the enunciated instances of intersection of the Imaginary and the Symbolic registers.

The Imaginary register is based on identification, and stems from the formation of the ego during the mirror stage. In the mirror stage, the subject identifies with his or her own image seen, for the first time, as dissociated from the body. The choice of the word “Imaginary” for this register is based in the Latin “imago”, meant to connote that the Imaginary is concerned with the image (Fink, 1995). More specifically, it features identification with an image that ultimately alienates the subject from the body. Due to the alienating distance created in this stage, the ego emerges to assuage the traumatic difference between self and other by means of ideals with which the person may identify. In this sense, the Imaginary stems from the subject’s original relationship to the body, and the texture of this relationship for any subject will depend upon the unique way that the alienating image with which the he or she identifies is discreetly contorted by demands of the Other, discussed below.

Even as a realm of appearances, the Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic because of its execution through language. We can think operation in the Imaginary register as having to travel through the structural mandates of language and the system of exchange in the Symbolic order. Due to this necessary passage through language, the ideals and identifications that would have emerged, based upon the image that creates the ego in the mirror stage, are unrealizable or consistently miss the mark. These ideals and identifications are unrealizable precisely because of their expression in symbolization. At this point we can see that another meaning of “imaginary” comes from the fact that the subject imagines that these ideals (i.e. meaning) are actually possible to convey in speech. Speaking subjects, then, have no alternative but to operate under the fundamental illusion of the Imaginary, that signification and signified meanings will unearth their truths. In the Imaginary, or the domain proper to the ego, subjects continually attempt to cement their identities by reducing the traumatic difference between self and other to individual identities in the form of ideal images (Julien, 1995).

When Imaginary relations are spoken of in Lacanian discourse theory, we are not dealing with relationships that do not actually exist between subjects. Rather, imaginary relations are relations between egos, each one based on many ideal images emerging as demand from the Other. In that these ego relations are subject to the structural mandates of language, making perfect expression impossible, all social relationships where speech is used for communication can be considered part of the Imaginary register.

The Symbolic and the Imaginary interlock as two sides of language, as the signifier in the Symbolic, and signified in the Imaginary. The emergence of the speaking subject, the subject of Lacanian discourse analysis, occurs at the intersections of these two registers, made apparent through how language is used (and, as we will see, how language is using). The abstract, theoretical relationship between the Symbolic and the Imaginary must be filled in by analyses of the particularities of subjects’ speech. Lacanian discourse analysis, and more specifically, treatment of the preface should be dedicated to developing an account of how this theoretical relationship is manifested in speech and reformulated in line with the ostensive, ideal self of the Imaginary. Where the Imaginary strives toward fixity, the Symbolic is in constant motion (Bowie, 1991). These contradictory trajectories of movement in each register are most visceral in their products—the imperfections and difficulties of speech. Acts of prefacing are the apparent, continuous mark of the difficulty of starting communication as the subject caught between these heterogeneous movements.


The Symbolic and the System of Exchange

The symbolic, as we have seen in relation to the Imaginary, cannot be equated with language as a whole. Instead, the part of language that is proper to the symbolic dimension is that of the signifier, as opposed to the signified or signification in the Imaginary (Zizek?). Signifiers in and of themselves have no true meaning, and are only constituted in relation to other signifiers. This basis in difference is where the notion of the Other as the entire system of language comes from (Lacan, 1977). Because, in the Symbolic, no pre-determined relations exist between signifier and signified, it is in this register that subjectivity is created. Moreover, the appearance of the unconscious through this symbolic order, an order which is other, characterizes the often asserted disjunction between the ego of the Imaginary and the subject of the unconscious. Without denying the structural connections between the two, discourse analysis from a Lacanian perspective is unequivocally more concerned with the latter.

In terms of importance relative to a theory of discourse, the Symbolic is the seat of emphasis upon structural determination given in language. This function is what often elicits characterizations of the Symbolic as law, order, or mastery (Fink, 1995). Further, this register is considered to reign supreme over the other registers by virtue of its role as the only passageway through which we have any access to the operation of either the Imaginary or the Real. As a gatekeeper or determinative structural mandate, operation in the other registers cannot even be thought without its influence. However, this mandate is not only epistemological. The Symbolic also bears upon the process by which the psyche is structured. In this sense the Symbolic cuts across the other registers in a way that renders them fundamentally different rather than just poorly accessed. We see in the Symbolic that the arrival of a signifier is sufficient for the sense that there exists a universe of signifiers, though this is not to say that there is nothing beyond the set of symbols that comprise a language (Evans, 1996). This is particularly important later, when we will characterize the preface as (yet another) re-initiation into the Symbolic, where coiling with the Imaginary takes place.

As we have said, the preface constitutes a moment of recurring initiations into the Symbolic order, which works both for and through the subject of speech. If we understand the preface as an intiation into the Symbolic, it is important to consider the psychic developmental trajectory of the subject. The original initiation into the Symbolic order is the final point in the mirror stage after an Imaginary identification has been made. From this developmental perspective, the Symbolic arrives on scene with the Imaginary, as if to grant access (albeit incomplete access) to the identification just formed. This line of reason urges the discourse analyst to envision this dual play of registers as equally constitutive of the subject in moments of speech.

David Pavón Cuéllar (2010) accounts for the interaction between the operation of the symbolic order and the speaking subject by posing a system of mutual exploitation where the subject always loses by virtue of his or her investment. In the system of symbolic exchange, the subject’s real being undergoes a sort of consumption as he or she is set to the task of sustaining the system upon having enlisted that same system for expressive purposes. The subject surrenders his or her “raw material” to become the real, divided subject of discourse whose remainder is the predicative exploitation or value for the system to which he or she is disposed by operation in the Symbolic realm. Hence the insistence that the real appearance of the speech-being of words always refer to the petrified appearance of being, or the symbolic speaking being that is entirely distinct from the missing real being of the speaking act (Cuéllar, 2010, p. 282).

Ironically, the ongoing process by which the real subject inevitably becomes replaced by the real speaking subject, producing a lack described by Cuéllar as exploitative and divisive, hatches alongside the production of speech. Where the movement of this process is most apparent is necessarily where, in a sense, it is already complete by virtue of taking place within the Symbolic, moved by a speaking subject. This Lacan points out, too, ‘the more the subject employs the signifier to get out of the signifying chain, the more he is integrated into the chain, and the more he becomes a sign of the chain’ (12/02/58, p. 245). Analytically, this point is crucial in suggesting that we eschew a notion of a beginning, content with interpretations that catch the subject in moments of speech. These moments are comprised of, among other deeds, delicate negotiation with an Other, even while the speaking subject has already submitted to the sacrifice entailed by the whole of the Symbolic. More pressing still are the refusals and resistances uttered, which only reinforce the chain of signifiers (Lacan, 1957-1958, 12/02/58).

This portrait of the structure of the symbolic system creates an unrest; a violent divergence of the subject that is barely but infuriatingly apparent. This poignant lack is not only important as a constituent of the formation of the unconscious, but also surfaces in a homologous manner at the level of the body and of the subject[1] (Verhaeghe, 2001). The exteriority and alienation of that which is most intimate, our real being, manifests as a scathing, itchy absence where it would be in the universe of discourse. All our best attempts to renegotiate the terms of our circumstances as speaking beings are met with recurring failures of integration. These troubles hover over the discursive scene, appearing as miscommunications, struggles to reconcile points of view, and other misunderstandings amongst speaking beings in the Imaginary. Cuéllar insists that the hostility of the expressing subject is a structural hostility that is inevitable in language which conceals it, making it detectable but nevertheless unintelligible. Moreover, he claims that such hostility is only functional insofar as it has its own exchange value in the Symbolic as a symbolized object of the repressive mechanism of the unconscious (p. 296).

It is by way of this structural hostility toward the unavoidable, inapprehensible difference given in the universe of signifiers that Lacanian discourse analysis comes to parse out the subject of speech from the confounding imaginary subjects. In contrast to Cuéllar’s determination, I suggest that this structural hostility can induce manifold reactions on behalf of the subject that need not mirror the aggression inherent in his or her own division. The speaking subject as such is as capable of hostility and aggression in the Imaginary as they are of understanding and communication. Insofar as the speaker answers the Other in speaking, he or she is part of diverse, overlapping relations that render styles of speech production more complex than that of a one-to-one matrix of affect. The hostility of induction into the symbolic is visceral in prefaces which, despite already being staged within the structure it references, can be likened to fresh moments of initiation into the realm of signifiers. Also, the subject’s own varying and revolving way of bearing his or her division can be useful in discourse analysis for providing the flavor of impending talk.

Taken in concert with the paradoxes of the Other (below) and the imbrication of the Imaginary and the hostile system of symbolic exchange here described, we can consider the preface to be a monument to representational fumbling. This fumbling is gripping in the context of discourse analysis in that it is one of the more transparently empty moments of signification. As a testament to overwhelming failure of the symbolic system which it is a part, prefacing always alludes to its own shortcomings. However, the expressive inadequacy of the preface is structurally constitutive of its function as an operative set of signifiers in a system whose success amounts to a divided subject. This subject is recursively formed through doing the bidding of a representational system which embeds and informs him or her. Indeed, there are infinitely many ways that the speaking subject can appear in the face of the interlocking of the Symbolic and the Imaginary. Crucial for the purposes of discourse analysis is the fact that these appearances are visibly contained in the use of the preface.

The Other

In order to appreciate Lacan’s theory of discourse and the discourse analytic strategies that do it justice, I will turn to the notion of the Other. This idea stands in distinction from the little “o” “others” who are other actual subjects, people with whom interpersonal relationships may be formed (Lacan, 1953, seminar II). The Other, as we will see, exists outside relations in the Imaginary as a non-localized collection of perspectives, norms, and rules from which we see ourselves. Hook (2003) identifies paradoxes of the Other which are helpful in setting out theoretical backdrop against which we must tailor current efforts to investigate the benefits of the preface as an analytic knitting point. Among these benefits is an expanded view of Other(s) of discourse, locatable or functionally ascertainable through the preface. These paradoxes cleverly amount to a survey of different conceptualizations of the Other, which is a classically thorny and loaded element of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. As we will see further on, these different ways of thinking about the Other in Lacan are enormously helpful in developing the Lacanian discourse analytic project by parsing out and guiding toward ways of meeting its goals, which can be as variable as its subjects.

At the outset, Hook points out that the Other subsides on a different plane, in isolation from the interchanges that go on between speaking subjects, even though it ultimately bestows a psychic reality that links and motivates subjects. This is because the Other cannot be conceptualized or understood psychologically; it persists as absolute alterity, beyond the inter-subjective, though another subject may, at times, provide for the speaker a physical embodiment of the Other. On this account, the Other is recognized as establishing the co-ordinates for inter-subjectivity and promptly escaping descriptive capture as just another subject through these co-ordinates (Hook, 2003, p. 4).

The apparently paradoxical nature of the Other here comes from being deeply implicated in the activities of inter-subjectivity, presiding, and leaving traces of its presence without assuming the role of another subject within these activities. That the Other may be embodied by other speakers is a testament to the absent, ghostly entrenchment of the Other in the discursive setting. Moments of embodiment also provide a limit case of proximity of the Other by which we can get a sense for the drastic variability of subject/Other postures. If we take for granted that the Other may have variable locations and different degrees of proximity for each subject, the prospect of taking a relational/interactional perspective between speaker and lurking iterations of the Other becomes even more appealing. As an alternative to assessing a speaking subject and formulaic type of Other with specified features that act upon or demand from the subject, each party (subject and Other) may be better ascertained or comprehended in specificity as per unique discourse analytic goals by tracing their joint development and mutually/contextually informed revolutions through the discursive scene.

Drawing jointly upon Lacan’s assertion in Ecrits (1977) and Žižek’s (2005) more structuralist account, the Other, notes Hook, seems to connote both the conditions of the unconscious and the storehouse of available signifiers within speech. This paradox is important in that it grounds the apparently external locus of speech and emphasizes the degree to which a psychoanalytic form of discourse analysis must concern itself with theorizing Others individuated in subjects. There arises the notion that the Other resides, in a sense, inside the speaking subject as the familiar (indeed, the only) way in which expression in the form of speech is achieved. This provides a direct contrast to the notion that the Other is still very much, as already mentioned, outside of the speaker as an impersonal set of communicative templates and suppositions. Essentially, this paradox points out that a Lacanian discourse analysis may do well to carefully parse out and distinguish between dynamics of the Imaginary and Symbolic realms, whose interplay influences the speech of the subject upon whom they act. If both of these stories of the Other are to be taken seriously, we seem to be committed to a very external “personal”. In order to reconcile, the apparently internal and external quality of the Other, reducing it neither to an inevitable force internal to and active upon the psyche nor to social presuppositions, institutions, and norms, a Lacanian discourse analytic methodology should focus chiefly on the relational qualities, quirks, and tendencies that arise between the enigmatic Other and the speaking subject with whom it emerges.

These paradoxes of the Other generate a few distinct, though not mutually exclusive renderings of the Lacanian Other, the delineations of which illuminate the range of forms and expanded, indeed often unexpected, possible encounters, effects, and interactional trajectories for development between and among forces imbricated to create moments of speech. The ‘Other as rules of the game/set of codes’ marks one pole wherein the Other can be understood as radically exterior. The ‘Other as embodied little other of conversation’ is a rendering of the Other that still functions externally but is recognizable or pronouncedly and tangibly relatable to the speaking subject within the Imaginary dynamics enacted in speech. Finally, the ‘Other as discourse of the unconscious’ marks the other pole of theorizing the Other where it is most singular to the subject’s style of speaking as to typify his or her expression and constitution. Taken together, all of these Others present a non-exhaustive spectrum of relational spatiality. These conceptions serve, additionally, as a reminder that fixing or presuming a certain type of relation to the Other is equally limiting and misrepresentative as fixing the meaning of a signifier for a subject.

For the purposes of discourse analysis, the temptation to extract any generalizable or overarching truths about the Other, either for a particular subject or as a more broad attempt to characterize the Other in Lacan must be resisted. Instead, the contextualized moments of speech in which this interaction is strikingly impactful (to be sure it is always entirely impactful, even decisive) on the speaking subject must be explored such that the discourse analyst can get acquainted with the various customizations and enunciated products possible within and cultivated through such an interaction. This interactional focus recommends that the enunciations uttered in discourse supervene the precise determinations of either speaking subjects or Other(s) with whom a paradoxical relation exists. Privileging this always-occurring encounter in discourse analysis may inform contingent determinations of context-dependent embodiments of the Other, but even these designations should ultimately seek recurring ways of handling the Other, visible in the idiosyncrasies of speech. The Lacanian discourse analyst must ask how the Other is simultaneously taken up and taken in to the degree that these encounters form the available modes of relating, always through speech, for a subject. We can understand the multifarious locale of the Other as a function of the interactions between its fundamentally free-floating form and the speaking subject through whom it is also, at least partially, domesticated.


The Preface of Discourse Psychology

There have been a number of attempts to bring discourse analysis, as it has been popularized in social psychology, into conversation with what discourse analysis might look like from a Lacanian notion of discourse (e.g. Neill, 2013). These attempts have been limited due to the lack of actual use of any form of Lacanian discourse analysis, rendering it only a theoretical or emerging system of discourse analysis (Parker, 2005a). Further, and much more of an impediment to the development of Lacanian discourse analysis is the danger of forcing Lacan into the discourse analytic practices used in Anglo-American psychology. Ian Parker has pointed out incompatibilities between discourse analysis as it has been executed in the turn-to-language in social psychology and the conceptions of discourse given in Lacan’s body of work (ibid). Although the many types of discourse analysis in psychology do not necessarily agree with respect to theoretical underpinnings, methodological principles, and applications, the most convergence between them is upon shared notions of what it is to be human. These notions are the same ones underlying most psychological research in Anglo-American psychology. Suffice it to say that the differences between discourse as conceived in psychology and discourse for Lacan suggest radically different subjects and forms of sociality. So far, I have focused on the type of discourse analysis proper to the speaking subject of Lacan.

 Now I will switch gears in service of the secondary idea of this paper, the imperative to fashion the tools or guiding mechanisms of discourse analyses to the particular discourse analytic systems they serve. This imperative comes from the idea that the ways different discourse analytic systems treat analytically important moments of speech (e.g. the preface) are so varied that they may not simply be swapped between systems. The underlying commitment of this notion is that the methodological strategies and tools of discourse analytic systems contain and affirm their ontological positions and conceptions of subjectivity. As such, they recursively have a determinative impact on the type of analyses generated. The following is a short account of the function of the preface and the type of information it yields about speaking subjects from a broad discourse psychology perspective. No doubt, there are multiple discourse psychological perspectives (see Malone & Roberts, 2010), and stark theoretical differences between them. The forthcoming account is simply meant to show the way that discourse analytic tools reflect and inform different ontologies. Secondarily, we have more opportunity to grasp how different the psychological and psychoanalytic ontologies and their corresponding, distinct notions of being human truly are. Again, this difference is the force motivating both the Lacanian discourse analytic project and my insistence on rearticulated tools and strategies.

The preface, known alternately across discourse analytic traditions as “precursor” or “hedger” are the remarks prior to what the speaker considers the content or juice of their speech turn. Prefaces are often conciliatory, explicatory or context-disclosing and can vary in length depending on how much introductory information the speaker sees fit. I will use the term “preface” as an umbrella term meant to denote what the conversation analytic tradition has studied at length under the more specific guise of “pre-indexing”, which has been broken down analytically to study various goals and doings (e.g. “pre-sequences” [Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson], “indirect speech” [Searle], “disclaimers” [Hewitt and Stokes], “politeness forms” [Brown and Levinson]) (Beach & Dunning, 1982). Though most work on these speech mechanisms have been geared toward explicating particular accomplishments resulting from their use, there seems to be significant convergence on the very broad notion that these “pre” devices function communicatively. Prefacing initiates and structures sequencing, acts as a strategy for setting up a social backdrop conducive to mutual understanding, maintains a sense of community between speakers, and can even evade or assuage responses that threaten credibility (Beach & Dunning, 1982).

Common to all of these uses is the idea that prefacing forestalls forthcoming speech in order to manipulate it for a speaker’s conversational aims (ibid). Other conversation analytic research describe “reference recalibration repair” and other practices of talk, similar in that formulations are tailored or repaired, suspending the development of an upcoming speech turn for the purpose of amending and fine-tuning its referents (Lerner et al., 2012). Moreover, study of these speech phenomena are meant to expose inferences made about shared knowledge between speakers and lay bare how this knowledge operates in practice. A preface can successfully reformulate categories of identification or alter the way some part of forthcoming speech is understood by offering a suggestion for one interpretation over another. Put differently, prefacing is much like adding commentary or delivering another referential frame through which other speakers might consider the prefacer’s forthcoming speech. On this account, prefacing can open the way for novel or more nuanced communicative exchanges that allow more mutual understanding.

The temporal placement of the preface here is a crucial element of its function with regards to future speech turns. The preface comes before the utterances to which they are to be applied, as opposed to mid- or post-speech corrections and reformulations, also studied in the psycho-discursive tradition (Bolden, 2010). This is a good place to begin considering the subject drawn up by this notion of the preface in distinction from the speaking subject of Lacan discussed above. This subject appears to be someone whose corrective and expansive uses of the preface actually work to create true understanding of a signified meaning for speakers. Based on the assumption that good use of speech will be sufficient for understanding between speakers, it follows that the preface would be used, along with future speech, to get a sense for one’s wishes, beliefs, emotions, and concerns. That these are communicable and important for getting a sense of the truth of a subject imply a subject who is fundamentally in control of what they say and how they say it. The sheer possibility of fully expressible beliefs and desires attributes to a speaker a full knowledge of these beliefs and desires.

As we will see, commitment to this true understanding can only generate an analysis of signified meanings in the Imaginary register. A psychological rendition of the preface amounts to just this, since psychology tends to emphasize understanding between speakers rather than the interplay of forces that produce speech from a Lacanian perspective. Although a cursory sense of what is going on in the Imaginary is not without value, a preface that corresponds only to this register and the subject therein amounts to an analysis of egos, subjects who know, rather than of speaking subjects whose truths involve more than just their claim to knowledge.


Lacanian Discourse Analytic Preface as a Grounding in Structure

In the last section, we took a brief look into how psychology ventures to get information about speakers through their speech. This notion takes for granted that speaking is intentional and creates mutual understanding between speakers. The latter condition, the supposition of mutual understanding, invokes a subject who is the sole agent of his or her speech, and is set to the task of making him or herself understandable. Our conception of the subject in relation to the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Other requires recourse to an entirely different type of discourse analysis. Correspondingly, the tools and devices used to analyze the subject of Lacan will contribute to and spring from these differences.

According to Lacan, it is the combination of structural necessity and investment that comprise the truth of the speaking subject. Therefore it is crucial that a discourse analyst not get caught up analyzing alleged ideas, opinions, and propositions formed by signifiers in speech. This distraction locks the analyst in the realm of the Imaginary instead of the Symbolic, where the truth of the speaking subject is locatable. The preface, itself a repetitive structural element of speech, grounds the analyst in the project of mapping the topology of speech. Regardless of the signified content of the preface, be it long (I’m only saying this ’cause I wasn’t sure if you knew…) or short (I’m sorry, but…), its frequently early appearance at the beginning of many utterances and longer speech turns give prompt hints of the way a subject’s speech is apt to contain gaps, repetitions, and self-stopping blockages. In this way, the discourse analyst’s ears may perk up to the quirks and nonsensical signifiers of speech through which the subject’s unconscious, in its complex logic, appears and speaks.

Another provocative facet of prefacing is the sense in which it can be viewed as an attempt on behalf of the subject to speak beyond what he or she is saying, or, to produce a metalanguage. These attempts at best indicate the subject’s interpretation of his or her own speech–interpretations produced within the grips of the Imaginary. In this way, the amount of prefatory work done by a subject can be indicative of the subject’s own interpretation of his or her relationship to the symbolic realm overall, as it is interwoven with the specificities of the operative Other, constraining and constrained by the speech of the subject. However, this self-interpretation executed by the preemptive self-corrections and communicative prescriptions of preface work is inadequate as an analysis because it only deepens and re-inscribes the shortcomings of the symbolic system that it supports. When a subject tries to speak beyond or outside of the speech that is available to them, they can only refer more signifiers to other signifiers. This failure to cementing a shared meaning or arriving upon a concrete referent turns out to be an illusion which exists solely in the Imaginary. Our look at the structure of the symbolic system of exchange found this illusion necessary to the subject’s continued use of speech at all. Still, discourse analysis must turn its focus on the failures and gaps in speech that function in tandem with this illusion. We are again reminded that any analysis of the Imaginary is an unnecessary contribution from the discourse analyst; subjects may pursue this sort of inquiry on their own. Prefacing work, then, can also be thought about as conditioned by the subject’s investment in the Imaginary reality of the meaningful content of the forthcoming signifiers that he or she is on the brink of uttering.

Neither, though, can we simply eschew the fact that the interpreter and subject are both couched in the same ‘proletarianized’ position, to use Cuéllar’s (2010) term, with respect to the symbolic system. Discourse analysts by no means stand detached from the symbolic system; this system operates the same way whether an utterance is an interpretation or some other enunciation. On this ground, analyzing prefaces can be seen as a continuation of the interpretive work that the subject is already doing as preparation for extended utterances that the subject hopes will secure a status of credibility beyond that which can be afforded by the symbolic system. That the interpretive work of the discourse analyst still represents a composite part of one unitary system of symbolic values is a useful reminder that the interpretation as well as the utterance has both Imaginary and Symbolic values. This point, that interpretation relies on the structural interplay between the two registers that make speech intelligible, is cautionary. Working with prefaces reminds us that the aim of the speaker in the Imaginary is often to maneuver a way of signifying without the constraints inherent in signification, i.e. to be steps closer to being “really understood” (Lacan, 1977).

Lacanian discourse analysis must utilize the imaginary sense of speech and the real “non-sense” which comprises the unconscious of the speaking subject. Where the (non-temporal) passage of the Imaginary through the Symbolic is concerned, an interpretation is always of an interpretation, making analyzable discourse quite a complex web of interpretations. Therefore, more thorough interpretations, as interpretations of interpretations, are not those that spend more time chasing and tracing signifiers whose links appear in the enunciating acts of a subject. A good interpretation does not speculate about the ‘real meaning’ to which a signifier refers and the meaning to which that ‘real meaning’, appearing necessarily as yet another signifier, refers (Parker, 2010). Rather, a thorough interpretation should encapsulate sense and nonsense by focusing on the enunciating acts and signifiers used by and using the subject.

How, then, can this element of prefacing inform discourse analyses? Neill has suggested that, for analysis to proceed, the discourse analyst must separate Symbolic from Imaginary meanings (Neill, 2013). Insofar as a preface can be taken as a signifier set of the Imaginary, it can be helpful to designate master signifiers. For Ian Parker, repetition of signifiers and metaphors that conceal other signifiers show the location of quilting points that ensures the continued circuit of speech (Parker, 2005a). If the preface is understood as one large signifier whose use joins the speaker with a speech structure, then its repetitive occurrences can be used as indicative of forthcoming master signifiers. These master signifiers can be easier to parse out given the various Imaginary investments (including the investment in the Imaginary) contained in acts of prefacing.

To the extent that prefaces are guiding points to the concerns of the subject in the realm of the Imaginary, they designate qualities of the Other to which subjects cling. With respect to the emphasis that Lacanian discourse analysis places on discerning the Other of speech, the Other of the preface marks the recipient to whom the aggression, reticence, or any other way of handling the mere fact of employing a system of symbolization, is addressed. Even if we are agnostic with regards to the form that the struggle of the symbolic may take for a subject, we can take for granted that the subject is never the isolated storehouse containing the traces of this struggle. The Other of the preface, then, is an impactful reminder of the paradoxical qualities of the Other that make Lacanian discourse analysis challenging—external, internal, the whistle-blowing overseer, and the deeply, even sentimentally, individuated. These qualities can broaden discourse analyses to fathom more complex subjects who mistake themselves in the discourse of another (Malone & Roberts, 2010).

Further, the Lacanian perspective resists the prospect of totalizing interpretation, whereas most discourse analyses tend to resists such interpretations in order to preserve the sanctity of context and, in doing so, more modest claims. What distinguishes one from the other is that the type of knowledge theoretically ascertainable by psychological discourse analyses is total. If these researchers had unlimited resources and funding to execute analyses in all contexts, they might claim that they have total knowledge about a particular subject. This exposes another fundamental philosophical difference between a Lacanian discourse analysis and those adopting the theories of the subject offered by Anglo-American psychology. A Lacanian analysis meets the limits of knowledge about the subject at apprehension rather than understanding. Understanding connotes that meaning is conferred from one subject to another, whereas apprehension points to a grasping of a subject-specific logic. Instead of trying to understand, for example, what the subject really wants by searching for it in their speech, we must try to apprehend the way this desire, regardless of its object, appears through and comes to bear on the structure of speech (Verhaeghe, 2001).

As we have seen in the account of the system of symbolic exchange apropos to any instance of the speaking subject, the preface can be taken as a natural beginning point for getting a sense for a subject’s Other as he or she burrows deeper into the system of symbolic currency. The subject is, as it were, inculcated anew into the truth of the symbolic: that it is ultimately divisive. The frustration of diving yet again into a communicative universe, the only one available, that works not only for the subject but through him or her as well serves as an ever-present reminder of the limits of the discursive field and its irreversible effects on the speaker who is simultaneously using and being used. In this vain, acts of prefacing, distinct from other enunciations, reveal the unique nuances of how any individual speaker is concealed in relation to their concerns in the Imaginary. During prefacing, a lack in the Imaginary is broached by the subject, obliging him or her to try to close gaps and make repairs that they are ill-equipped to make. As a result, we see a subject whose deep entrenchment in the Imaginary coincides with the limits of what can be said. For use in discourse analysis, the style of the preface marks the subject’s own customized reaction upon brushing up with his or her own concealment by the Symbolic.

To be sure, speakers are often consciously aware of the difficulties of everyday communications. Prefaces are similar moments of doubt, frustration, and suspension, even though they are common, if not perfunctory, as in the preface of a novel, textbook, or presentation. There are two distinct but related differences between the chaos that inheres in the preface and that of other conversational fumbling. The first is the preemptive status of the preface. The second, which we will handle now, is the locus of knowledge for the speaker. Is the subject at least minimally aware of the violence inhering in his or her own repetitive initiations into the structural constraints and allowances of the symbolic domain? Phrased as a more general concern, how much or in what sense might we say a speaking subject engages with the truth of the Symbolic?

From a Lacanian perspective, this knowledge is fluctuating, fleeting, and confounded by other factors stemming from communicating at the level of the Imaginary. In fact, these questions can only be answered with respect to a particular subject. Instead of attempting to pre-establish limits for how and in what manner the speaking subject can interact with or demonstrate the truth of his or her constitution and maintenance in the space between the signifiers he or she utters, we should focus on how this appears for each subject. Here, we are not trying to generate any theory of knowledge or systematic way to analyze. On the contrary, any theory of knowledge is surrendered for glimpses at the real speaking subject who uniquely maintains and grapples with knowledge that is neither universal nor necessarily apparent at all. Analyzing prefaces are simply opportunities to discern a subject’s relation to the real of the Symbolic. And further, since the preface is preemptive of the speech in the Imaginary, we can conclude that prefaces speak to concerns therein. Therefore, we are able to analytically untangle a subject’s relation to the real of the Symbolic because of the tight knitting of the Imaginary and Symbolic in moments of prefacing.

As a note of caution, it would be a mistake to glean, from the characterization of the preface as an initiation into the Symbolic realm that any prefacing work done on behalf of the speaking subject exists outside of the Symbolic realm. Because prefaces are still only configurations of signifiers, functioning still as more agents of symbolic exchange, they do not evade or transcend the limits of what is ascertainable from the speech of a speaking subject. The truth of the speaking subject is not to be found in what we think they are trying to communicate, but rather in the way their division by speech persists. This persistence creates the topological elements of speech. These include repetitive use of certain signifiers, self-corrections, logical connections between signifiers, to name a few. Therefore, we must take pains not confuse any meaning that we may be tempted to claim comes from the speech content of the preface with the truth of the speaking subject.

In this respect, Lacanian discourse analysis must utilize different tools and discourse analytic strategies than other traditions of discourse analysis coming from the turn-to-language in psychology. As we have seen, discourse analytic camps that aim to generate a psychology of the subject based on the meaningful content of his or her speech are, from a Lacanian perspective, analyses of the Imaginary. Lacanian discourse analytic work supports a form of enigmatic wisdom stemming from a comparatively small sphere of mineable determinations possible about any subject of speech. Based on the functional distinction between (1) the Imaginary subject, (2) the subject of the Symbolic, and (3) the unknowable Real subject, a Lacanian perspective points out, as its analytic product, particularities, styles, nuances, gaps, and systemic mishaps pertaining to how and why knowledge found in discourse is not of the Real subject but of the truth of the Symbolic.

These distinctions encompass the importance in Lacanian discourse analysis of valuing form over content. This distinction involves attending to the formal or structural qualities of speech rather than the specific signifiers that are used by speakers to impart meaning. As we see from the connection between the Symbolic and the Imaginary, this attempt at true communication is, according to Lacan, a structural impossibility because of the nature of symbolic exchange. When speakers attempt to understand one another or convey meaning with signifiers, they are operating in the Imaginary register where, as speaking subjects in the commonplace conditions of speech, they perpetuate their own division. So, analyzing prefaces, typically understood to supplement future speech rather than hold a complete, stand-alone meaning, helps the discourse analyst resist an analysis of the content of spoken utterances. This temptation to understand or extract an underlying meaning from the signifiers, used between speakers to form and uphold social relations, must be swapped for comprehension of the formal structure of the subject’s speech.



I hope to have shown that Lacanian discourse analysis can benefit from familiarity with and use of the “preface” as an analytic tool. The preface is a tool particularly in line with the aims and philosophical commitments embodied in Lacanian discourse analysis as opposed to other forms of discourse analysis currently popular in discourse psychology. Because it is an important moment for gleaning topological or structural facets of speech, the preface is a marker of the type of truth with which Lacan’s theory of discourse is concerned, the truth of the Symbolic. In this sense, it finds the speaking subject in between the dictates of the Symbolic and those of the Imaginary. Moreover, the preface and Lacanian discourse analysis should be taken as exemplary of the notion that the methods and tools of discourse analytic systems contain within them ontological ideas and types of subjects they can encounter. For these reasons, it is important that the strategies and implements of discourse analyses correspond to the elements of speech prioritized by researchers, whatever they may be.


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[1] In a chapter of his Beyond Gender, Verhaeghe teases out the homologous structure between the lack in the Symbolic, caused by structural incompatibility between systems of language and organic systems, and the lack in the Real, precipitated by the loss of the original state of non-sexed being upon sexual reproduction and birth. This loss at the level of the Real is mirrored and taken up phalically in the Symbolic and the Imaginary, thus producing a homologous lack in each of the three modalities. Tracing lines of thought in Lacan’s Encore and Seminar XX from as early as 1948, he discusses the implications of homology between the body, the unconscious, and the subject for a Lacanian ontology (pp.130-132)