Lacan’s trace

4 minute read


“That there are in the unconscious signifying chains which subsist as such, and which from there structure, act on the organism, influence what appears from the outside as a symptom, this is the whole basis of analytic experience” (Seminar V, 21.05.58., p.7).

The first three quotations we will look at come from Seminars III, V and VI respectively. The little story he relates from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one that we find repeated in several places in his work from this time, the so-called ‘Return to Freud’ period.

“Let’s begin with the biological sign. In the very structure, in the morphology, of animals there is something that has this captivating value due to which its receiver, who sees the red of the robin redbreast for instance, and who is made for receiving it, undertakes a series of actions or henceforth unitary behaviour that links the bearer of this sign to its perceiver. Here you have what gives us a precise idea of what may be called natural meaning. Without otherwise seeking how this might take place in man, it is clear that by means of a series of transitions we can manage to purify, neurtralise, the natural sign. Then there is the trace, the footprint in the sand, the sign about which Robinson Crusoe makes no mistake. Here sign and object separate. The trace, in its negative aspect, draws the natural sign to a limit at which it becomes evanescent. The distinction between sign and object is quite clear here, since the trace is precisely what the object leaves behind once it has gone off somewhere else. Objectively there is no need for any subject to recognise a sign for it to be there – a trace exists even if there is nobody to look at it. When have we passed over into the order of the signifier? The signifier may extend over many of the elements within the domain of the sign. But the signifier is a sign that doesn’t refer to any object, not even to one in the form of a trace, even though the trace nevertheless heralds the signifier’s essential feature. It, too, is the sign of an absence. But insofar as it forms part of language, the signifier is a sign which refers to another sign, which is as such structured to signify the absence of another sign, in other words, to be opposed to it in a couple” (Seminar III, p.167).

“I spoke to you about Robinson Crusoe and about the footstep, the trace of Friday’s footprint, and we dwelt a little while on the following: is this already the signifier, and I told you that the signifier begins, not with the trace, but with whatever effaces the trace, and it is not the effaced trace which constitutes the signifer, it is something which poses itself as being able to be effaced, which inaugurates the signifier. In other words, Robinson Crusoe effaces the trace of Friday’s footprint, but what does he put in its place? If he wants to preserve the place of Friday’s footprint, he needs at least a cross, namely a bar and another bar across it. This is the specific signifier. The specific signifier is something which presents itself as being itself able to be effaced and which subsists precisely in this operation of effacing as such. I mean that the effaced signifier already presents itself as such with the properties proper to the unsaid. In so far as I cancel the signifier with the bar, I perpetuate it as such indefinitely, I inaugurate the dimension of the signifier as such. Making a cross is properly speaking something that does not exist in any form of locating that is permitted in any way. You must not think that non-speaking beings, the animals, do not locate things, but they do not do it intentionally with something said, but with traces of traces…. What man leaves behind him is a signifier, it is a cross, it is a bar, qua barred, qua overlaid by another bar which indicates on the one hand that as such it has been effaced” (Seminar VI, 10.12.58., p.3).