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[1].

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 Freud's Oedipus complex. In Lacan's Seminar of 1969–70, Lacan argues that the terrifying Oedipal father that Freud invoked was already castrated at the point of intervention.[2] The castration was symbolic rather than physical. In an effort to stem analysts' tendency to project their ownimaginary readings and neurotic fantasies onto psychoanalysis, Lacan worked to formalise psychoanalytic theory with mathematical functions with renewed focus on the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure. This would ensure only a minimum of teaching is lost when communicated and also provide the conceptual architecture to limit the associations of the analyst.


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 = This is the dominant, ordering and sense giving signifier of a discourse as it is received by the group, community or culture.

S2 = This is what is ordered by or set in motion by S1. It is knowledge, the existing body of knowledge, the knowledge of the time.

$ = The subject, or person, for Lacan is always barred in the sense that it is incomplete, divided. Just as we can never know the world around us except in the partial refractions of language and the domination of identification, so too we can never know ourselves.

a = the objet petit a or surplus-jouissance. In Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, objet petit a stands for the unattainable object of desire. It is sometimes called the object cause of desire. Lacan always insisted that the term should remain untranslated, "thus acquiring the status of an algebraic sign".

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 – We see a barred subject ($) positioned as master signifier’s truth, who’s itself positioned as discourse’s agent for all other signifiers (S2), that illustrates the structure of the dialectic of the master and the slave. The master, (S1) is the agent that puts the other, (S2) to work: the product is a surplus, objet a, that master struggles to appropriate. In a modern society, an example of this discourse can be found within so-called “family-like” work environments that tend to hide direct subordination under the mask of “favorable” submission (to master’s truth). The same principle effectively works in families with gender-assigned roles. Based on Hegel's master–slave dialectic.
  • Discourse of the University – Knowledge in position of an agent is handed down by the master signifier (S1) that legitimises it and being positioned in the place of discourse’s truth. Imposibility to satisfy one’s need with an knowledge (which is a structural thing) produces a barred subject ($) as discourses product and the cycle repeats itself as the subject is being pointed back to the knowledge (note that discourse’s truth is being positioned aside of this loop and never been reached directly by the subject).
  • Discourse of the Analyst – The position of an agent — the analyst — is occupied by objet a: analyst's silence leads to reverse hysterization, inasmuch as the analyst, by becoming question himself, embodies barred subject’s ($) desire that let’s his symptom speak itself through speech and thus be interpreted by the analyst. Knowledge, positioned as discourse’s truth (S2) stands for both analyst interpretation technique and knowledge acquired from the subject. Master signifier (S1) of the other ($) emerging as a product of this interpretation.
  • Discourse of the Hysteric – Despite it’s pathological aura, hysteric’s discourse exhibits the most common mode of speech, bluring the line between clinical image and social link. Object a in a place of truth defines interrogative nature of agent’s address (Who am I?) as well as structural impossibility of satisfaction with the knowledge received, which leads other (S1) to produce a new knowledge (discourse’s product) in a futile attempt to provide a barred subject with an answer. Freud broke this cycle by purposefully leaving the question unanswered, reversing the discoure and putting an analyst in a place of hysteric’s desire (Discourse of the Analyst).

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]


  1. ^ Neill, Calum (2013-06-01). "Breaking the text: An introduction to Lacanian discourse analysis". Theory & Psychology. 23 (3): 334–350. doi:10.1177/0959354312473520. ISSN 0959-3543.
  2. ^ "stanford encyclopedia of philosophy". External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  • 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]