There is no such thing as a metalanguage

Lacan is often quoted as claiming – alongside the post-structuralists (Derrida, for example, who claimed that there is nothing outside the text) – that there is no such thing as a metalanguage. I want to challenge my Lacanian colleagues to account for this statement.

I would begin by reminding my friends that Lacan also claimed that “woman does not exist,” but, as we all know, this does not stop us from having intercourse with her, and it does not stop her from intervening into man’s affairs, and, finally, it does not stop her from speaking and being accounted for, however paradoxically, in the discourse from which she speaks.

Is it not in the same strange logic that we can take Lacan’s claim that there is no such thing as a metalanguage? Lacan demonstrated precisely that a metalanguage can be employed, can be seen, and, moreover, can be transmitted. Make no mistake: his mathemes were his demonstration of this proof. In the 8th seminar Lacan said:

“[…] there is no such thing as a metalanguage.

We can speak of metalanguage when, for example, I write signs like a, b, x, and kappa on the blackboard. That works, that functions — that’s mathematics.” (p. 336-7).

But at the level of speech, there is no metalanguage. Lacan claimed that we can prove this simply by taking hold of the fact that one is always subject to repression, castration, anxiety, … one can never get outside of all of that: “[o]ne can speak of speech, naturally, and you see that I am in the process of doing so. But in doing so, all of speech’s effects are involved, which is why I am saying that, at the level of speech, there is no such thing as a metalanguage — or, if you prefer, that there is no such thing as a metadiscourse. Or, finally, that there is no action that definitively transcends the effects of the repressed” (p. 337).

So there you have it. Metalanguage does not exist. But, precisely because it does not exist, it can be written. It can be written and transmitted, and exchanged among beings of speech – but it can not be spoken without the pitfalls of losing its metalanguage, its essence. “This is why,” Lacan claimed, “my little notation […] can only be written with chalk on the blackboard” (p. 337).

“It is essential that we not forget this unsayable place insofar as the subject dissolves there and insofar as only algebraic notation can preserve it” (p. 337).

The subject is lost in the moment of the unsayable, in the moment of the speaking of a true metalanguage: “If, perhaps, there is, in the end, some such action, it is at most the action by which the subject dissolves, is eclipsed, and disappears” (p. 337). We know this as the structure of psychosis – a structure which it is entirely possible to touch, a structure which is not the same structure of the woman who does not exist, but a structure which is, nonetheless, the moment of the reinvention of the subject as such.

Lacan is often quoted as claiming – alongside the post-structuralists (Derrida, for example, who claimed that there is nothing outside the text) – that there is no such thing as a metalanguage. I want to challenge my Lacanian colleagues to account for this statement.

I would begin by reminding my friends that Lacan also claimed that “woman does not exist,” but, as we all know, this does not stop us from having intercourse with her, and it does not stop her from intervening into man’s affairs, and, finally, it does not stop her from speaking and being accounted for, however paradoxically, in the discourse from which she speaks.

Is it not in the same strange logic that we can take Lacan’s claim that there is no such thing as a metalanguage? Lacan demonstrated precisely that a metalanguage can be employed, can be seen, and, moreover, can be transmitted. Make no mistake: his mathemes were his demonstration of this proof. In the 8th seminar Lacan said:

“[…] there is no such thing as a metalanguage.

We can speak of metalanguage when, for example, I write signs like a, b, x, and kappa on the blackboard. That works, that functions — that’s mathematics.” (p. 336-7).

But at the level of speech, there is no metalanguage. Lacan claimed that we can prove this simply by taking hold of the fact that one is always subject to repression, castration, anxiety, … one can never get outside of all of that: “[o]ne can speak of speech, naturally, and you see that I am in the process of doing so. But in doing so, all of speech’s effects are involved, which is why I am saying that, at the level of speech, there is no such thing as a metalanguage — or, if you prefer, that there is no such thing as a metadiscourse. Or, finally, that there is no action that definitively transcends the effects of the repressed” (p. 337).

So there you have it. Metalanguage does not exist. But, precisely because it does not exist, it can be written. It can be written and transmitted, and exchanged among beings of speech – but it can not be spoken without the pitfalls of losing its metalanguage, its essence. “This is why,” Lacan claimed, “my little notation […] can only be written with chalk on the blackboard” (p. 337).

“It is essential that we not forget this unsayable place insofar as the subject dissolves there and insofar as only algebraic notation can preserve it” (p. 337).

The subject is lost in the moment of the unsayable, in the moment of the speaking of a true metalanguage: “If, perhaps, there is, in the end, some such action, it is at most the action by which the subject dissolves, is eclipsed, and disappears” (p. 337). We know this as the structure of psychosis – a structure which it is entirely possible to touch, a structure which is not the same structure of the woman who does not exist, but a structure which is, nonetheless, the moment of the reinvention of the subject as such.

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