Saussure, Psychoanalysis, and Event

How does an event intervene into the signifying system? I’ve found that it pushes throughout all the unsaids of the system (e.g., all of the zeros within the numerical system which makes possible each succession and each coup de force of the name of number; whereby 1 = 0, 2 = 1,0; 3 = 2,1,0). What Jacques Alain Miller referred to as suture was also explained by Saussure through his notion of “the collective inertia toward innovation:”

The over-complexity of the system. A language constitutes a system. In this one respect (as we shall see later) language is not completely arbitrary but is ruled to some extent by logic; it is here also, however, that the inability of the masses to transform it becomes apparent. The system is a complex mechanism that can be grasped only through reflection; the very ones who use it daily are ignorant of it. We can conceive of a change only through the intervention of specialists, grammarians, logicians, etc. ; but experience shows us that all such meddlings have failed.

Collective inertia toward innovation. Language-and this consideration surpasses all the others-is at every moment everybody’s concern; spread throughout society and manipulated by it, language is something used daily by all. Here we are unable to set up any comparison between it and other institutions. The prescriptions of codes, religious rites, nautical signals, etc., involve only a certain number of individuals simultaneously and then only during a limited period of time; in language, on the contrary, everyone participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all. This capital fact suffices to show the impossibility of revolution. Of all social institutions, language is least amenable to initiative. It blends with the life of society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative force.

But to say that language is a product of social forces does not suffice to show clearly that it is unfree; remembering that it is always the heritage of the preceding period, we must add that these social forces are linked with time. Language is checked not only by the weight of the collectivity but also by time. These two are inseparable. At every moment solidarity with the past checks freedom of choice. We say man and dog. This does not prevent the existence in the total phenomenon of a bond between the two antithetical forces-arbitrary convention by virtue of which choice is free and time which causes choice to be fixed. Because the sign is arbitrary, it follows no law other than that of tradition, and because it is based on tradition, it is arbitrary.

Saussure went on to claim that within linguistics, change takes time. Intuitively, this makes sense. We can not just invent a word and expect people to understand what we mean by the word. A new word must be accepted by a community and there is tremendous pressure from any given community against such a change. Let us claim that language is obsessional, conservative, and, therefore, fundamentally neurotic.

What then for the psychotic? My claim is that the psychotic is the one for whom change does not take time. In other words, the psychotic is the one who is constantly messed up in the introduction of new words. We see this clearly in James Joyce’s writings. However, the psychotic is the one also who insists on saying words which are not necessary to say (recall, Lacan claimed in Seminar III that the psychotic’s signature is the development of neologisms) – the psychotic is within the real.

An event, then, is initially quite psychotic. It introduces something which is not yet necessary to say and this change does not take time. An event hits the signifying system all at once, immediately every signifier, every sign, is effected. This is what Badiou meant, I think, when he claimed at one time that we are all subjects of an event – we just all respond to it in a different way. Some of us respond in fidelity to the event. Others attempt to suture the event.

By “value,” Saussure meant that each sign or signifier has a value only by virtue of its relationship to the network of everything else within the signifying system:

Take a knight, for instance. By itself is it an element in the game? Certainly not, for by its material make-up-outside its square and the other conditions of the game-it means nothing to the player; it becomes a real, concrete element only when endowed with value and wedded to it. Suppose that the piece happens to be destroyed or lost during a game. Can it be replaced by an equivalent piece? Certainly. Not only another knight but even a figure shorn of any resemblance to a knight can be declared identical provided the same value is attributed to it. We see then that in semiological systems like language, where elements hold each other in equilibrium in accordance with fixed rules, the notion of identity blends with that of value and vice versa.

Psychosis occurs when the suture does not exist, or when it temporarily opens up to let in a bit too much of the real. At this point we could claim that the entire system of zeros or unsaids within the signifying system become activated and the signifiers or numbers stand naked. Psychosis is the moment when all values are equal instead of being based on the Saussurean differentiation between the value of one sign or signifier and the multiplicity of everything else. An event is when a point is made possible, that is, a new value introduces itself and causes a shock to the multiplicity of the signifying system. The consequence is anxiety, … or worse. Panic.


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