Jacques Lacan's theory of discourses proposes a system for understanding purpose and motivation that can provide helpful insight into who we are and what we desire. Learning about discourse theory can teach us to be more introspective and better listeners in our day to day lives!
Discourse theory emerged from Lacan's psychoanalytic research on language and object-relations. Lacan's theories dealt heavily on the relationships between the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. Under his school of thought, the Imaginary provides a bridge between the world of Symbols and a more fundamental Reality underlying all things; there are many similarities here to Idealism. Lacan saw important nuggets of truth in early psychoanalysis and built upon this a more general framework for understanding how language works to relate people and ideas to one another.
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In discourse theory, Lacan proposes an algebraic relationship between four symbols: master-signifier, knowledge, the subject, and objet petit a, "object little a", meaning "surplus" in this context. These symbols may be arranged in different configurations, producing a discourse; an observable linguistic/structural phenomenon in reality. Throughout our lives, we will find ourselves frequently occupying different positions in this equation, often rotating in and out of them in the course of coversation!
The Four Discourses
The four discourses described by Lacan are master, university, hysteric, and analyst discourse. Each of these discourses consists of a unique arrangement of the four symbols above. Without getting too complicated, the key idea in Lacanian discourse theory is that each discourse exhalts a specific attribute or quality, while masking a fundamental lack inherent to it. This indirectly reveals truth in the exercise of masking it.
The discourse of the master is the discourse from which the others emerge, putting forth mastery as the ultimate ideal. It is self-qualifying, as it mobilizes knowledge as a means to the end of mastery, although it masks the division of subject and desire for selflessness inherent in mastery: the act of mobilizing and communicating mastery is the end unto itself! What should a master have left to desire other than the ability to be a servant of knowledge? As we learn more about the other 3 discourses, we will see how this paradox plays out.
The discourse of the university proposes knowledge as a fundamental and neutral unit of value; this can be seen in academia, or even in political ideology. Masked is the fact that all knowledge must be self-referencing and self-valuing: an attempt at mastery, by way of positioning knowledge, specific knowledge of some sort, as valuable. The university, the state, or any prevailing ideology can only be as neutral as the most-neutral parlance of knowledge or understanding that exists.
From the perspective of hysteric discourse, the primary issue brought to light is the divided subject. Here, it is formally addressed that the function of the master signifier is to be self-referencing. All surplus flows out from the appropriation of the master signifier, unto itself, while masking that any signifier equally requires a participant in that symbol, a surplus, to actually signify something. In capitalist society, as Slavoj Žižek describes, this is the fetishization of commodity. Commodities, money, education, and the like, any valuable asset really, is on some level valuable unto itself, as being an equitable fabric of exchange.
The discourse of the analyst is essentially the inverse of the discourse of the master. The analyst willingly subverts the drive for mastery to offer a channel for another to be analyzed. A practical example is that the role of the psychoanalyst is to hystericize the discourse of the patient; the analyst necessarily leaves absent their desire or goal in analysis so that the act of hysteria in and of itself reveals a surplus. Suddenly, the patient is made aware of some underlying truth or value inherent to their circumstances, and are elevated to the position of mastery. It is commonly advised that to be a good listener, you should acknowledge someone's struggles rather than propose solutions, and in Lacanian psychoanalysis we can see why this is helpful.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”