On the Translinguistic Split of the Subject as Imaginary and as Symbolic

Simone A. Medina Polo
17 min readDec 16, 2022

[Note: This essay was originally published in The Young Freudians in 2018 and these days it can only be accessed as a YouTube audiobook here: https://youtu.be/DXlPsSeXtro
This version is editted to include citations and further clarification in some ambiguous sentences.]

Abstract

The following short paper is a more focused recapitulation of a larger piece presented for Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology in Warsaw, Poland. Whereas the original paper, “Language, Dwelling, Being-in-Position(s),” engaged with the work of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida at length to situate the broader issues that emerge from their respective philosophy of language and language of philosophy; this present piece remains strictly Lacanian in its orientation and methodology. Operating under the suppositions that (i) language functions as a condition of the possibility of identity and difference and that (ii) language is placed in between the consistent and the inconsistent, this paper seeks to demonstrate the following thesis: When faced and developed by idiosyncratic unconscious demands from the Symbolic order as the contested site of the desire of the Other, the polylinguialist subject finds translinguistic tensions over the irreconcilable demands that each of his languages pose in him. By doubling the Symbolic and the Imaginary structures of the subject in accordance to each language that the polylingualist possesses / possesses him, the polylingualist will nevertheless stumble across the Real as the inconsistent excess of each of the doublings of these Lacanian structures. [1]

Introduction

In the work of Jacques Lacan, one of the major topics that can be decisive for psychic clinical structure is the Symbolic Other — a point of ideal coincidence between language and signification through psychic condensation and metaphor inaugurating a discursive space for analysis; an intersubjective space where desire sorts itself out in accordance to the speculated desire of the Other whether it be by rejecting it or assuming it as one’s own. As the paternal function at work in language, the Symbolic is one that legislates and coordinates the structural relations of the constitution of ego and its complementary, identical other within the terms of intelligibility — for instance, whether self-narrational articulations and object-relations are consistent within the order and given orientations or not; as in fantasy, desire finds its way by pondering over what is it that the Other desires. And through the lack in the Other and the (mis-)recognitions of the Imaginary, the Real makes its castrated inconsistent (im)possibility felt within the other registers of its subject in a manner than informs the ability of self-narrating and communicating as a transgression or torsion.

In this essay, we are looking to consider the possibility that dwelling in multiple languages amounts to a split of the general Symbolic Order, where the structural injunctions of multiple languages are effective in however idiosyncratic a way. If the Symbolic entails a coincidence with (a) language, other languages may very well declare their own paternal expectations and intelligible notions of coincidence between a unit of language and the symptomatic signifier. Thus, the paternal function can be asserted to be rather a foster paternal functions of our orphaned state, as each language lacks something of how the subject may articulate itself as Imaginary and as Symbolic, in such a way that the idiosyncrasies of the polylingualistic constitution of the subject amounts to imminent tension surrounding the continency and the inconsistency of its identity and its meaning. Furthermore, we hope to show that the polylingualist can inform us about something that is not as immediately accessible to the monolingualist—namely, the radical contingency of one’s belonging in language rather than assuming a singular language as a naturalized necesssity of who we have been, who we are, and who we will be.

I. Basic Summary of Lacan’s Three Registers in Phenomenological Terms

In short, as Lorenzo Chiesa has done in his text Subjectivity and Otherness, I will discuss Lacan’s work as divided in three periods, each surrounding a particular register of the structures of the Lacanian subject (Subjectivity and Otherness, 4 and 5). As a supplement, I have included the Schema L from Lacan’s Seminar on the Purloined Letter below, as it will help as a point of reference for this discussion. But before starting, here is a brief word on Lacan’s notion of metaphor: Metaphor in the psychoanalytic experience is that, in the relationship of speech, the analysand is at knots over what they may mean in talking to the analyst between what can be spoken out (S1) in the act of speaking ($). In other words, the subject of psychoanalysis is split between what it can say about itself and what it fails to say, because what is explicitly spoken out can obscure what is happening implicitly in the act of speaking. Thus, the metaphoric unit is loaded as the inaugural cut for the structure of meaning which simultaneously starts its contention with the articulation of the structure of enjoyment in that of meaning. For instance, if Lacan were to restage Descartes through Freud, he wouldn’t say “I think, therefore I am,” instead he would say something along the lines that: I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think. I am not whenever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, pp. 35–36).

(Figure 1. Structure of Metaphor)
(Figure 2. Schema L)

The Early Lacan is oftentimes characterized by the Mirror Stage and the Imaginary register. In Schema L, this is noted as the relationship between (ego) a — a’ (other). In a word, this relationship between an ego and its object, as in the phrase “I want this,” supposes the phenomenological insight that consciousness is apparently transparent to itself.

The Middle Lacan introduces the Big Other and the Symbolic, noted in Schema L as A (Other). Whereas the Early Lacan pertains a consciousness that is apparently transparent to itself, here consciousness is apparent to itself only through an-Other. For instance, the Symbolic is effectively at work in the formation of an ego and its object as desire articulates itself under the condition of a given language; or a culture that makes its sense of self intelligible; or a religion and belief system through which the ego gains worldly orientation; or ideology which structures desire as a political factor.

The Later Lacan is characterized through the Real and the phrase “There is no sexual relation,” where we come to terms that because consciousness is apparent to itself only through an-other, consciousness is not transparent to itself — Schema L, this is noted as Es, which in French translates as le ça and in English, though it is known as Id, the more proper term for this aspect of the unconscious is It. However, the Real does not mean that the Imaginary and the Symbolic are nulled as a result of It speaking. Arriving at truth took semblance, obscuration, and forgetting. The tension of the Real is only possible in so far as the Imaginary and the Symbolic are also in operation.

Let us consider the example of Woman as the symptom of man. Within the strictly Imaginary register, we observe the constitution of identity through complementary, identical otherness — woman is the symptom of man insofar as his identity is contingent on the stability of woman as its object of desire. In the Imaginary, we observe the constitution of identity through a sew-saw of desire between attachments and detachments — as in the case of the crisis of masculinity in light of the emergence of radical gender movements, Woman’s stability has been compromised, and therefore man has lost the grounding stability of his identity; thus, the Imaginary is contingent on the consistency and stability of its object around which it gains articulation. In the Imaginary, self-narrative acts as a form of patching-over of inconsistencies, as a censor function that attempts to reify its object within intelligible terms containing any exceeding excesses.

For the Middle Lacan, the question of Woman as the symptom of man does not so much focus on the see-saw of desire between an ego and the object of desire — rather it is the structure that grants meaning to the whole movement is put into consideration. Whereas before we are looking at man and woman in the constitution of identity, what the crisis of masculinity highlights is the general structure in which the see-saw of desire gained meaning — in other words, the crisis of masculinity highlights that there is a hole that breaks the consistency of identity and its constitutive object, and this structure that grants meaning as intelligible and consistent is that of the Symbolic Big Other whom we desire in accordance to its intelligibility. Of course, in accordance with the question of the injunctive demands surrounding how the Big Other may desire, we may ask: Which Other? And thereby, which language? As, at least within the terms of the current inquiry, we encounter the struggle between multiple languages trying to determine “ought” and the content of the meaning at hand in the structure of meaning.

And lastly, in Later Lacan, the question is not so much about the Symbolic structure that tries to patch meaning as intelligible and consistent, but rather about the gap and hole in meaning that opens up when we face the unintelligible and the inconsistent. In the case of Woman as the symptom of man, the question is moreso along the lines of the breakdown of meaning and symbolization due its contingent ground — for as man’s identity was contingent on woman, the moment woman ceased to be a stable and fixed guarantor of man, man broke down into an uncanny stranger to himself, once again reminding us that identity fails to be identical with itself. And even more radically, that the identity we took for granted was only a placeholder for less than nothing. As Slavoj Žižek eloquently notes:

The Lady therefore functions as a unique short circuit in which the Object of desire itself itself concides with the force that prevents its attainment… Or — to quote Hegel’s formulation of the same paradox — how is it that we can attain identity only by losing it? There is only one solution to this problem: the phallus, the signifier of enjoyment, had simultaneously to be the signifier of ‘castration,’ that is to say, one and the same signifier had to signify enjoyment as well as its loss.
However, if we bear in mind the original traumatic impact of the Lady, not its secondary idealization, the connection is clear: like the Lady, the femme fatale is an ‘inhuman partner,’ a traumatic Object with whom no relationship is possible, an apathetic void imposing senseless, arbitrary ordeals.

(“Courtly Love: Or, Woman as Thing,” pp. 96–97 and 102).

II. The Imaginary of the Polylingualist

Since in the analytic experience we are concerned with speaking out and being spoken out, the very act of speaking turns out to highlight some curious dynamics of the polylingualist’s translinguistic experiences. For one, we may stress that at the moment of saying anything, different forms of inflection such as accents may come to the fore of any conversation — the everyday experience of immigrants, for instance, is always met with the injunctive question “Where are you from?” in such a way that the very act of speaking situates one in differential relationships, such as that of the natural citizen and the immigrant.

In L’étourdit, Lacan highlights a similar example over the term “barbarians’’ and its Ancient Greek the term “βάρβαρος,” which may as well amount to “blah blah blah” or blabbermouthness in reference to the funny speech of the outsider — as a regulation of right to discourse and a regulation of the city, “βάρβαρος” would be set up as antithetical to “πολῑ́της,” or the citizens. The very act of speaking itself is situating regardless of the content of its speech — as in the case of the immigrant, regardless of what is said in their speech, they may as well be always met by the empty formal injuction of the obsessive question “Where are you from?” Thereby, Lacan situates the Freudian discovery and the space for discourse it has opened up besides the xenophobic regulations of the right to discourse and the regulations over who is a citizen:

Je me passe donc parfaitement du temps du servage, des Barbares rejetés d’où les Grecs se situent, de l’ethnographie des primitifs et du recours aux structures élémentaires, pour assurer ce qu’il en est du racisme des discours en action.

J’aimerais mieux m’appuyer sur le fait que des races, ce que nous tenons de plus sûr est le fait de l’horticulteur, voire des animaux qui vivent de notre domestique, effets de l’art, donc du discours: ces races d’homme, ça s’entretient du même principe que celles de chien et de cheval.

(L’étourdit, pp. 65 and 67)

Therefore I will dispense completely with the time of cervage [servage +
cervix; slavery and the chained neck], with the Barbarians rejected from
where the Greeks situate themselves, with the ethnography of primitives and the recourse to elementary structures, to secure what discourses in action involve in terms of racism.

I would prefer to base myself on the fact that as regards races, what we
hold to be most reliable is the achievement of horticulture, or indeed of
animals which live from our domestication, the results of skill, therefore of
discourse: these races of man are maintained on the same principle as those of the dog or the horse.

(L’étourdit, pp. 64 and 66)

Nevertheless, let us linger on an amphibolous expression in this excerpt, for while Lacan tries to situate himself in a different place from the relationship of the immigrant and the citizen, he admits that the differential relation persists despite its inconsistencies — when Lacan says “J’aimerais,” the expression should be split between the homophonic “Jamais” (Never) and the “J’aimerais” (I would love to). Meaning that as much as Lacan would love to do away with this into an indifferent place as that of “de chien et de cheval” (the dog and the horse), he still returns to the issues surrounding this differentiation which persist.

And while we might have just touched on the question insofar as it turns towards the immigrant, let us consider a person’s own relationship to embodying themselves with language as a mediating point. In various cases, polylingualists, while living in different languages, they may carry themselves differently through each language — for instance, in one language they may be more prone to using hand gestures as opposed to the other; or in one language they may loosen up and make more puns and jokes than in the other; or perhaps there may be no point of comparison between each language, and it is not so much that one language lacks something that the other has, but rather that language accesses spaces without resolution or relation to one another since each offers something unique to the articulation of the subject. Ultimately, at hand we are considering the polylingualist subject as one whose embodied ego-image may differ from itself in accordance with what language the subject is being spoken through — as the subject’s sense of itself, as either representable or articulable, is contingent on the language that construes its constitutive complementary objects.

III. The Symbolic of the Polylingualist

Thus far we have engaged with two issues for the polylingualists: (i) how it is that differential relationships constitute their identity and place in relation to linguistic discourse (as in the case of the immigrant and the citizen), and (ii) how it is that besides these differential relationships, in between language, that the polylingualist encounters translinguistic idiosyncrasies that nevertheless constitute the sense of the polylingualist Imaginary.

Now we are turning to the consideration of the Symbolic order of the polylingualist to note that there is a tension in our characterizations of the polyngualist Imaginary that will inform our notion of the polylingualist Symbolic. So far, in the Imaginary, the constitution of the subject as ego and its complementary object have been so in accordance to the injunctions of the general structure of meaning — for this, we have to double the Symbolic while sustaining the general structure of the Symbolic. The doubled symbolics are contingent in their content, and it is due the irreconcilability and idiosyncrasies of their respective particularities facing off each other that is effectively at play in the fragmented polylingualist Imaginary — however, it is for these mere contents that we nevertheless sustain the general Symbolic as the formal space that these two doubled symbolics contest, and of which their contest finds manifestations in the loose figments and tensions over what one is as Imaginary.

The question is much like what both Alenka Zupančič and G.W.F. Hegel point out in considering Kantian deontological ethics — in her case, Zupančič reads Kant with Lacan to emphasize that while Kant tries to stabilize the field of ethics through duties and the ought, a Lacanian reading nevertheless reminds us that we could reserve our judgement over duties by opposing one duty over to another such that we could be legislating ought merely in accordance to our desire (Ethics of the Real, pp. 58–62); whereas in Hegel, he reminds us that right does not wait to be ought to be right (Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 378 and 401-402). The lesson from both of them is that any one content can fit this Symbolic space of normative injunctions — and insofar as it pertains the current inquiry, different languages and their contingencies struggle over this place of domination of the subject over itself.

IV. The Real — or despite all language

Despite all language, we stumble across the Real as an excessive limit that exceeds the signification and meaning. This is one of the central lessons of poetry: The Poet is an incarnate contradiction between the impotence and the overload of linguistic expression. In metaphor, we find an atomic unit to poetics that admits to this humiliating humility in poetry and linguistic expression: metaphor is literally saying the wrong thing to get at something besides what is being said. The Poet humbly turns the poverty in language’s lack into the wealth of language. If we were to talk about any poetics of the Real, the lesson then is that the poet cannot penetrate the subject directly, but rather talks around it, and by that roundabout gesture, the poet nevertheless arrives there.

Yes, in the Imaginary we encounter fragmented identities and narratives; and yes, in the Symbolic we encounter a battle over the structure of meaning by several contingent linguistic commanders awaiting to give their command over meaning and intelligibility. Though this is a pessimistic look at the polylingualist condition, perhaps much like the poet, we can turn the poverty in languages’ lack into the wealth of language — for these fragmented identities and narratives, as well as these irreconcilable, idiosyncratic meanings can be best seen as fingertips of the polylingualist ability to feel around themselves being the subject in question. The inconsistencies that the polylingualist faces returns us to the contingencies of particular parental functions, where in twists and torsions, each language may gain access to some translinguistic aspect that becomes realized as Real however inconsistent these may be.

To formulate out of my experience and as a playful poetic Notion: in assuming the signifier in different languages, a stain of the Real pursues me regardless of the different orientations of my imagination. For instance, I have assumed the signifier both in English and in Spanish, but the stain of the Real constantly interrupts both imaginary processes — as I have an accent in English as well as in Spanish, thus I am constituted in the imaginary process of both languages into an ego operation; nevertheless, despite being from both places, I am revealed to being simultaneously from nowhere due to the anamorphic play which stains the fragmented image and every passing vignette.

The monolingualist, for one, lives under the impression of their necessary connection to the language in which they emerge as consciousness, so much so that they may project their linguistic region on to others in order to render it the least bit intelligible. The monolingualist might be under the seeming impression that their language belongs to them — but in this sense, Derrida is correct to point out that we never own language (Monolingualism of the Other; or the Prosthesis of Origin, p. 2). At best, we are appropriated to the language’s region. The polylingualist might note this more clearly, as they have transitioned from one foster home to the nest in the languages that have home them and made them homeless. This sense of displacement is very much like moving, from regions within the singular language’s territory — for instance, dialects, regionalisms, accents, architectures, attitudes, intimacies, idioms, etc. — or to completely different language territories as if it were a completely foreign country which claimed our bodies.

So, it is in this sense that even from the monolingualist’s concern, we are, per say, linguistic orphans yet perpetually tied up to the foster system of languages. Though one may be kept shut from realizing that the languages that have paternally appropriated them are not, in fact, their point of origin at all — the Other is an impostor!

Conclusion

(Figure 3. Modified Schema L)

I have placed a modified version of Lacan’s Schema L above as to visualize and formalize for the discussion we have had so far. And by way of conclusive remarks, the Real remains an aspect of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and practice which has plenty to offer insofar as various socio-cultural and political questions are concerned — in order to test the universality of Lacan’s approach, this case tries to show that it is not just a question of taking a case and applying Lacan to it and voila! No, rather, in order to get a sense of any concrete universality, in engaging with Lacanian theory we must transform the theory itself for its subject so as to not pretend we already have a hold of the subject. The Real of our question is not so much an indifference to the polylingualist Imaginary and the polylingualist Symbolic, but rather how it is that the Real is also a result of the polylingualist condition and how the polylingual may also teach us something about the Real.

To finish up on a note that pertains practice and technique rather than theory alone — the efficacy of language remains an important question to the apophantic logic of psychoanalysis, one may note that the ability to engage with an analysand in multiple fluid languages has something to offer to the practice of analysis. For one, it offers different particular points of access to its subject without the determinations and limits imposed by any one language gaining dominance — of course, the transferential considerations over what this dominant language may mean are yet to be exactly determined. One may suppose, however, that as far as transferential and countertransferential phenomena may be concerned, the domination of any one language in the discursive space of analysis may be red flag for practical consideration, an unconscious skewing that may fail to be recognized — as one may be molding one’s analysands to one’s own liking rather than opening a fluid space for the analysand to work through themselves, for example. With that being said, as much as different languages may offer different points of access to the subject, these may also amount to different points of withdrawal for the subject, over which, again, we may have to consider their transferential and countertransferential phenomena. In any case, the stakes of the problem in its practical scope amount to the issue that, though in theory we say there is no such thing as a metalanguge, we may unwittingly act as if there is such a thing in our own language at the expense of our analysands.

Notes:

[1]For a brief qualification, by polylingualist we mean someone who lives multiple languages rather than merely speaking them — we prefer the language of dwelling as opposed to living, however, for dwelling conveys language more as a terrain of experience and its territorializations. Thereby, dwelling in language as a polylingualist subject entails navigating the determinations and indeterminations of each language-terrain as they do and undo their subject.

Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.

Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other; or the Prosthesis of Origin. Trans. Patrick Mensah. Standford, CA: Standford University Press, 1998.

Lacan, Jacques. “L’étourdit” (pp. 31–80) in The Letter: Irish Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Trans. Cormac Gallagher. 41 (2009). Accessed on December 16, 2022: https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Lacan_en_anglais.pdf

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. U.S.A.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1998.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Ed., J.N. Findlay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love: Or Woman as Thing: (pp. 89–112) in The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. New York: Verso, 2005.

Zupančič, Alenka. Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan. New York: Verso, 2011.

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Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.