Four discourses

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Four discourses is a concept developed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He argued that there were four fundamental types of discourse. He defined four discourses, which he called Master, University, Hysteric and Analyst, and suggested that these relate dynamically to one another.

  • Discourse of the Master – Struggle for mastery / domination / penetration. Based on Hegel's master–slave dialectic.
  • Discourse of the University – Provision and worship of "objective" knowledge — usually in the unacknowledged service of some external master discourse.
  • Discourse of the Hysteric – Symptoms embodying and revealing resistance to the prevailing master discourse.
  • Discourse of the Analyst – Deliberate subversion of the prevailing master discourse.

Lacan's theory of the four discourses was initially developed in 1969, perhaps in response to the events of social unrest during May 1968 in France, but also through his discovery of what he believed were deficiencies in the orthodox reading of the Oedipus Complex. The Four Discourses theory is presented in his seminar L'envers de la psychanalyse and in Radiophonie, where he starts using "discourse" as a social bond founded in intersubjectivity. He uses the term discourse to stress the transindividual nature of language: speech always implies another subject.

Necessity of Formalising Psychoanalysis[edit]

Prior to the development of the Four Discourses, the primary guideline for clinical psychoanalysis was the Oedipus Complex. In Lacan's Seminar of 1969-70, he argues that there was a major problem with the Oedipus complex, namely that the father is already castrated at the point of intervention, rendering the orthodox Freudian reading, where the father becomes a terrifying figure, a neurotic fantasy. Lacan's solution to the tendency of analysts to invoke their own imaginary readings and neurotic fantasies was to begin to formalise psychoanalytic theory, and express it in mathematical functions. This would ensure not only that a minimum of the teaching is lost when communicated, but also limit the associations of the analyst with the concepts employed.


Discourse, in the first place, refers to a point where speech and language intersect. The four discourses represent the four possible formulations of the symbolic network which social bonds can take and can be expressed as the permutations of a four-term configuration showing the relative positions — the agent, the other, the product and the truth — of four terms, the subject, the master signifier, knowledge and objet petit a.

The four positions in each discourse are :

Agent = Upper left. This is the speaker of the discourse

Other = Upper right. This is what the discourse is addressed to

Product = Lower right. This is what the discourse has created

Truth = Lower left. This is what the discourse attempted to express

The four variables which occupy these positions are :

S1 = the master signifier

S2 = knowledge (le savoir)

$ = the subject (barred)

a = the objet petit a or surplus-jouissance

S1 refers to "the marked circle of the field of the Other," it is the Master-Signifier. S2 is the "battery of signifiers, already there" at the place where "one wants to determine the status of a discourse as status of statement," that is knowledge (savoir). S1 comes into play in a signifying battery conforming the network of knowledge. $ is the subject, marked by the unbroken line (trait unaire) which represents it and is different from the living individual who is not the locus of this subject. Add the objet petit a, the object-waste or the loss of the object that occurred when the originary division of the subject took place — the object that is the cause of desire: the plus-de-jouir.

Discourse of the Master:

It is the basic discourse from which the other three derive. The dominant position is occupied by the master signifier, S1, which represents the subject, S, for all other signifiers: S2. In this signifying operation there is a surplus: objet a. All attempts at totalisation are doomed to fail. This discourse masks the division of the subject, it illustrates the structure of the dialectic of the master and the slave. The master, S1, is the agent who puts the slave, S2, to work: the result is a surplus, objet a, that the master struggles to appropriate.

Discourse of the University:

It is caused by an anticlockwise quarter turn of the previous discourse. The dominant position is occupied by knowledge (savoir). An attempt to mastery can be traced behind the endeavors to impart neutral knowledge: domination of the other to whom knowledge is transmitted. This hegemony is visible in modernity with science.

Discourse of the Hysteric:

It is effected by a clockwise quarter turn of the discourse of the master. It is not simply "that which is uttered by the hysteric," but a certain kind of articulation in which any subject may be inscribed. The divided subject, $, the symptom, is in the pole position. This discourse points toward knowledge. "The cure involves the structural introduction of the discourse of the hysteric by way of artificial conditions": the analyst hystericizes the analysand's discourse.

Discourse of the Analyst:

It is produced by a quarter turn of the discourse of the hysteric in the same way as Freud develops psychoanalysis by giving an interpretative turn to the discourse of his hysterical patients. The position of the agent — the analyst — is occupied by objet a: the analyst becomes the cause of the analysand's desire. This discourse being the reverse of the discourse of the master, does it make psychoanalysis an essentially subversive practice which undermines attempts at domination and mastery?

Relevance for cultural studies[edit]

Slavoj Žižek uses the theory to explain various cultural artefacts, including Don Giovanni and Parsifal.

Discourse Don Giovanni Parsifal Characteristics
Master Don Ottavio Amfortas inauthentic, inconsistent
University Leporello Klingsor inauthentic, consistent
Hysteric Donna Elvira Kundry authentic, inconsistent
Analyst Donna Anna Parsifal authentic, consistent

See also[edit]


  • Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology (Duke University Press, 1993). See chapter 5 and see especially note 24 on page 274. There are similar examples in some of his numerous other books.
  • David Pavón-Cuéllar, From the Conscious Interior to an Exterior Unconscious: Lacan, Discourse Analysis and Social Psychology (Karnac, 2010). See chapter eight and especially pages 265 to 269.
  • The original presentation of Lacan's theory is in his Seminar XVII (English translation; New York: Norton, 2007)
  • For a clearer explanation see Mark Bracher. "On the psychological and social functions of language: Lacan's Theory of the Four Discourses" in Mark Bracher (ed) Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure and Society. (New York University Press, 1994) pp 107–128
  • There is a brief explanation in Dylan Evans. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. (Routledge 1996).

External links[edit]