exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

By introducing the idea of a fragmented, constantly ‘failing’ subject, Lacan directly challenged the essentialist concept of a ‘stable identity’, or ‘constant ego’ as commonly accepted since Descartes’ Cogito. Indeed, according to Lacan, biological sexual differences between individuals could be viewed as the ‘paradigmatic difference’ at the origin of the formation of the subject ‘from the outside’ (and of the subsequent formation of the unconscious) through the insertion of the individual into the symbolic order. Thus, a fundamental aspect of the Lacanian account is the ‘failing’ aspect of this insertion, as the individual is never able to completely ‘fit’ the subject positions available to it within the symbolic order, or to find a subject position through which it can really ‘speak’ itself instead of being ‘spoken’ by language and wider cultural codes.

More precisely, one of the most important aspects of Lacan’s account of the formation of the subject could be seen in the theory of the mirror stage, which could be understood as a ‘perturbation’ of the state of “ideal completeness” that the child experiences before its insertion into the symbolic order (Elliot, 1994). In this ‘pre-symbolic’ state, there is no distinction between the child, its mother or the outside world, but a realm of ‘floating sensations’ in which emotions are indiscriminately invested in parts of the body of the mother; this state of ‘undifferentiated bliss’ described by Lacan as the imaginary order, is, according to him, interrupted during the mirror stage, where the individual is unconsciously confronted with the idea of a difference, a boundary between its own body and the external world. During this period of crisis, the child misrecognises itself as the image reflected by its own ‘position’ in regards to its mother, which results in the formation of a fragmented subject never fully capable of inhabiting the fantasised subject positions available to it within language and culture. This aspect of the Lacanian theory has been borrowed noticeably by Althusser in the famous ISAs essay in which he borrows – although rather gesturally – from the Lacanian account of the formation of the subject to illustrate the mechanisms through which ideologies ‘interpellate’ the subjects, that is how the individual is ‘hailed’ by ideology, and how it (mis)recognises that it “really is” the individual being hailed (Althusser, 1969).

The insertion of the subject into the symbolic order could thus be seen as the cause (and consequence) of an unconscious traumatism. Indeed, the subject constantly has to face its own incapacity to fill the ‘gap’ that exists between itself and the positions it seeks to occupy within the symbolic order. This is, according to Lacan, the source of unconscious, unsatisfiable desires; in its relentless search for the ‘lost object’ the subject is unconsciously driven by a never-ending quest to ‘make good’ for its absence from the subject positions it seeks to occupy. Subjects could therefore be understood as “continually haunted by a feeling of absence” (Redman, 2000, p. 24). This desire of something that “escapes language” (Redman, 2000, p.23) is particularly well illustrated in Slavoj Žižek’s essay on Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo, in which the elusive Madeleine is presented as the personification of the ‘lost object’, a sublime figure of the ‘essential women’ fantasised by Scottie. Once the object of Scottie’s fantasy as the ‘lost object’, or the Thing, disintegrates itself, it reveals the ‘void’ or the absence of the other and, in the process, becomes repulsive to him (Žižek, 1991). This particular aspect of the Lacanian theory could even be used to uncover the unconscious desires at the origin of certain social phenomena. For instance, couldn’t the idea of marriage be seen as the union of two people, each fantasising and misrecognising their partner as their ‘soul mate’?

The ‘lost object’ is not the only Lacanian concept that has been commented and developed in the field of cultural studies. The idea of suture, which could be defined as “the precise means by which the subject, who is said to have no existence outside language and wider cultural codes, is repeatedly ‘articulated’ with the positions made available in them” (Redman, 2000, p.33) has also been developed in film studies, noticeably in the work of Kaja Silverman. In Suture (1983), Silverman illustrates how this notion can be used to understand the symbolic processes through which the viewer experiences the cinematic language. She argues that, in the cinematic language, the part of the scenery that is not ‘shown’ by the camera could be assimilated to the ‘Other’, and posits the sense of lack that viewer subsequently experiences as the cause of her unconscious desire to ‘see more’, thereby proposing a theory of the unconscious mechanisms of suture and desire.

Another aspect of the Lacanian theory of the subject and which has been the object of a range of various interpretations in psychoanalytic feminism and gender studies is the process through which sexual differentiation takes place in the framework of the Oedipal Crisis, where the child has to identify itself as ‘having’ or ‘lacking’ the Phallus. The Lacanian concept of Phallus could be understood as the symbolic ‘transcendentalisation’ of the penis as the fantasized position from which the subject could be able to ‘speak itself’ within the symbolic order, instead of imperfectly occupying a particular subject position. In addition, the Phallus could be understood as the primordial tenet of culture, “the bearer of the ‘Law’, the ‘symbolic function’ that (…) is said to enforce the incest taboo” (Redman, 2000, p. 28).

According to Lacan, the fact that boys actually do have a penis makes them more inclined to identify with the ‘Having the Phallus’ position, thus having to ‘live up’ to this fantasized subject position of masculinity (which makes the position of ‘masculine subject’ particularly precarious), whereas girls would be more likely to identify with the ‘Lacking the Phallus’ position, a position which acts as a fantasised ‘negative proof’ that the boys indeed ‘have’ the Phallus. This particular idea of the woman as the ‘negative’ of the man (“La femme n’existe pas”) has been the object of numerous comments from feminist thinkers, whose standpoints will be further developed in the following parts of this essay. Another Lacanian concept that could be linked to the subject position of the woman is the idea of Jouissance, which could be described as a state of bliss that is experienced when, for a moment, one ‘escapes’ the laws and codes of language; indeed, women, as fantasised objects of desire, and reflections of the unattainable Other, could be seen as standing ‘in the way’ between the man and Jouissance as in the example of Scottie and Madeleine. On the other hand, one could wonder if this particular position of being the one that ‘lacks the Phallus’ is not the best one from which to attain Jouissance.

This rejection of the idea of a biologically fixed, innate gender to which Lacan opposes the view of a sexual identity acquired through culture is a crucial point that has been developed by feminist thinkers such as Jacqueline Rose (1989), who, through a feminist reading of Lacan’s framework, highlights its inherent phallocentrism and proposes a more ‘feminine’ approach to psychoanalysis. Indeed, the idea that sexual identity can be understood as always ‘failing’, always unfinished, goes against the essentialist idea that genders are biologically fixed, providing a terrain on which sexual identities, since they could be understood as socially constructed and historically situated, can be challenged and subverted. In one word, gender is a signifier, which only has meaning within the framework of culture.
Moreover, certain feminist readings of Lacan, such as the one expressed in Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language
(1974), illustrates the rejection of the phallocentric connotation of the Lacan’s concept of the symbolic order through the introduction of the pre-symbolic stage of chora, a “logical category that precedes language”. Luce Iragay, another feminist thinker, sought to emphasise the experiences of the female body as ‘multiple’ and ‘plural’ in opposition to the binary “’phallic logic’ of the symbolic register” based on the presence/absence couple (Redman, 2000, p. 32).

Although the Lacanian concepts presented in this essay have been used to develop various theories of Identity, they could be challenged on several points. First, Lacan’s emphasis on the Phallus and the Law of the Father could be dismissed as rather phallocentric. In addition, as highlighted by Hall (1996, p. 22), the idea of the Lacanian pre-subject has yet to be fully explored. Furthermore, one could argue with Popper (Gilje and Skirbekk, 2001) that since psychoanalytic theories are not falsifiable, they could be dismissed as epistemologically invalid, thus challenging their scientific status. Finally, a last argument against Lacan’s theory of the unconscious lies in the fact that, since it is itself ‘located’ within discourse, one could argue that it may not be able to accurately conceptualise the phenomena it seeks to describe.

Even though it can be challenged, the Lacanian theory of a formation of the subject by and in language could be seen as particularly powerful in the context of an application to the social sciences. Indeed, Lacan’s concept of the unconscious and unconscious desires could be seen as rather useful in the context of (a theorisation of agency) and has been noticeably combined with Foucault’s theory of discourse. Examples of attempts to reconcile the Lacanian and Foucauldian perspectives could be seen in the work of Judith Butler (1993) or Stuart Hall (1996) and illustrate the ways in which such a combination could be made possible despite the potential incompatibilities between these two sets of theories.

Indeed, although the Foucauldian approach would suggest to dismiss the psychoanalytic discourse as irrelevant to the study of subject formation and even as the expression of a particular type of power (couldn’t the psychoanalyst be seen as the powerful holder of a certain ‘psychoanalytic truth’? yes- see comment above on regimes of truth) one could wonder if the notion of symbolic order could be understood as rather conceptually close to the Foucauldian idea of discourse, thus providing the basis for a theory of identity combining Foucault’s rather ‘thin’ theory of power and discursive practices with the (thicker) psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious and Lacan’s theory of the formation of the subject through gender identification and differentiation.
An interesting example of such effort could be seen in the work of the philosopher Judith Butler (1993). Indeed, Butler’s theory could be seen as an attempt to reconcile the Lacanian concept of the unconscious with the Foucauldian theory of discourse and discursive practices by emphasising the notion of performativity, that is to say the way we occupy the subject positions available within discourse through ‘performing’ the cultural codes of the identity we seek to comply to. By highlighting the regulatory aspects of discourse, that is to say how discourse ‘creates’ feminine, masculine, or ‘queer’ subjects, Butler illustrates how such discursive categories can be challenged and positively ‘reappropriated’ by the people they originally denominate.

Although Butler’s account of subjectification through the use of the concept of performativity provides an interesting combination of the Lacanian theory with ‘wider’, more socially-orientated accounts such as Foucault’s, the tension between these two sets of theories entails several theoretical problems, as highlighted by Hall (2001). An alternative to Butler’s resolution of the problem of ‘citation’ or ‘iteration’ through which the individual ‘occupies’ a particular subject position by ‘performing’ according to certain cultural codes could be seen in the more sociological reading of Lacan offered by Stuart Hall. Indeed, Hall argues that sexual differences could be seen as one amongst many other differences such as differences of race, or nationality, which participate in the formation of one’s identity. With the use of tools borrowed from the Foucauldian toolbox, such as the genealogical study of the term of race, Hall significantly highlights the historical and sociological situatedness of the differences that forms our identities. Furthermore, Hall borrows the Derridean concept of différance to introduce the idea that differences of gender or race, and consequently the very identities constructed by the negative imprint of such differences are constantly redefined in a never-ending sliding of meaning. The richness and analytical power of such a sociologically centred approach could therefore be seen as one of the most interesting reading of the Lacanian account in the framework of a theorisation of the formation of identity.

To conclude this essay, we could argue that meaning establishes itself in the framework of a constantly ‘sliding’ and ‘moving’ system of differences, in which the subject positions itself. In such a context, sexual difference could therefore be seen as one of the main differences (with differences of races, of nationality…) through which the subject positions itself within discourse. Although for Lacan, the first and foremost difference that has to be faced by the individual and is constitutive of its insertion within discourse is the sexual difference, one cannot dismiss the importance of the cultural and historical context in the formation of the subject, but also in its theorisation, thus highlighting the advantages of a sociologically-oriented approach to identity formation.


Althusser, L. (1969) Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (eds) (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 31-38.

Butler, J. (1993) Critically Queer, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (eds) (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 108-17.

Elliot, A. (1994) Poststructuralist Anxiety: subjects of desire, in Blackwell, B. Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction, Oxford, Oxford, pp. 184-9.

Gilje, N. and Skirbekk, G. (2001) A History of Western Thought: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century, London, Routledge, p. 387.

Hall, S. (1996) Who Needs ‘Identity’?, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 15-30.

Kristeva, J. (1974) Revolution in poetic language, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 69-75.

Redman, P., Evans, J. and du Gay, P. (2000) D853 Study Guide, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Rose, J. (1982) Feminine sexuality, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (eds) (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 51-68.

Silverman, K. (1983) Suture: the cinematic model, in du Gay, P., Evans J. and Redman P. (2008) Identity: A Reader , London, Sage/The Open University, pp. 76-86.

Žižec, S. (1991) Ladies who vanish in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, London, October Books, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, pp. 84-7.

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