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Few terms are more ubiquitous in the contemporary human sciences than the "subject," and few are more elusive.

It is typically used in work deriving from 'continental philosophy', the psychoanalysis of Lacan and the Marxism of Althusser, and from all those descriptions of decentering tha tdisplace the source of meaning away from the indiviudal (often described as the "Cartesian subject") and towards structures, impersonal or unconscious processes and ideology.

For most theories of the subject, the 'individual' is a product rather than a source of meaning.

The concept of the subject is thus frequently invoked to undermine the notion that an innate sense of 'self' can provide a stable personal identity or be the focus of experience.

The goal of much wiritng on the subject is to subvert that sense of immediate identity.

When Kristeva, for instance, writes (1973) of 'un sujet en procEs she is playing on the double meaning of en procEs: the subject is both invovled in or produced by a process, and on trial.

The inherent ambiguity of the term goes some way to explaining its popularity and productivity.

It is both a grammatical term ('the subject of a sentence') and a political-egal category ('a British subject'), and at once active ('subject of') and passive ('subject' or 'subjected to').

The term 'the subject' is not used in the phenomenology of Sartre (who uses it only in critical discussions of structuralism, e.g. 1966) or Merleau-Ponty, but nor is it a standard expression in all forms of structuralism; Levi-Strauss very rarely employs it.


Lacan refers to 'the subject' in his very first publications but when he refers in his thesis (1932) to 'the psychosis of our subject,' he is imply following the convnetional medical-psychiatric usage that speaks of 'the subject of an experiment' or of 'the subject under examination.'

In his other prewar writings Lacan refers to the analysand, or the patient in analysis, as 'the subject'; this too appears to be a variant on traditional usage.

It is in the 1950s that Lacan introduces the crucial distinction between ego and subject (1953).

The ego is now described as a product of the mirror stage and as belonging to the order of the imaginary, whilst the subject is understood to mean "the subject of the unconscious."

In a typical display of wordplay, Lacan makes his point by stressing the homophony between the initial letter of the word sujet and the German Es (the id).

The true subject of human behavior is to be found, that is, in the unconscious.

The entry of the subject into the dimension of the symbolic produces a further splitting or decentring of the subject by subordinating (subjecting) it to the laws of language and to the unavoidable difference between the subject of the utterance (EnoncE) and the subject of the enunciation (Enonciation): the "I" that speaks does not coincide with the "i" that appears in the message it sends.


Lacan uses the related expression "the subject who is suppose dto know" (le sujet supposE savoir) to describe an important dimension of the transference (1973).

thus it is the analysand's supposition that the analyst knows the meaning of his words or has a privileged insight into his behavior that sets in motion the transference.


Althusser uses 'subject' in a broadly similar sense to Lacan in his theory of ideology and in his description of its fundamental mechanism of interpellation (1970); the subject does not exist prior to its interpellation, but is summoned into being by it.

For Althusser, the existence of 'over-determination' means that the social totality has no essence or single focus, and therefore no subject.

It follows that history is a process without subject and that individuals are no more than the 'supports' for a subjectless dialectic.

A basic distinction in philosophy is the difference between subject and object. We recognize this distinction in our terms "objective" (dealing strictly with the knowledge derived from our observation) and "subjective" (reacting in a manner based on emotions and attitudes of an individual). In psychoanalytic theory, the term "subject" refers to the sum of the physiological and psychological operations that sustain a human individual as a "person". The human subject has both mental and bodily dimensions.

Psychoanalysis is critical of the Cartesian vision of the subject as a centered, autonomous "I" whose self-awareness can be taken as a foundation for philosophical inquiry. For psychoanalytic theorists like Freud and Lacan, the subject's autonomy and self-awareness is constantly undermined by impulses from the id and steered by the pressures of the superego. In this sense, "individual" is an inaccurate synonmym for "subject" because the Freudian model of the subject is divided into at least three conflicting parts.

A good way to understand the differences between theoretical approaches is to examine what they emphasize in (and leave out of) their accounts of the human subject. Feminism, for example, may pay particular attention to the body as a site of cultural impositions based on gender norms; Marxism may focus on the subject as a source of productive (and exploitable) labor and as itself the product of ideological conditoning.


The primary psychic construct produced by the individual’s traumatic accession to the symbolic is the Lacanian subject. Just as the real is the realm of undifferentiated consciousness and the imaginary is the realm of the ego (pre-symbolic identity formation), so the symbolic is coeval with and constitutive of the subject (Evans 195). The ego, produced by the process of differentiation first experienced in the mirror stage, is superseded by the subject as the primary psychic structure by which the individual relates to the surrounding world. In a radical departure from both traditional humanist conceptions of the self and the Freudian construct of the ego as the privileged mode of human existence, Lacan designates the subject as a function of the signifying chain, a linguistic phenomenon produced by the symbolic order which the infant enters in the originary moment of articulating the mother’s absence. As such, and given the hollowness of signifiers in the Lacanian signifying chain, the subject is reduced to the status of being merely a signifier for another signifier. It exists not independently of the perpetual flux of signification, but only as one in an endless series of events in that flux:

the distinguishing marks of subjectivity are to be found not in the forces, faculties, aptitudes and dispositions that individuals in varying combinations possess, but in the signifying processes of which they are part. [Lacan’s] philosophy of the human subject is self-consciously thin, empty and weightless. He invents a subject without subject-matter. […] ‘The subject’ is no longer a substance endowed with qualities, or a fixed shape possessing dimensions, or a container awaiting the multifarious contents that experience provides: it is a series of events within language, a procession of turns, tropes and inflections. (Bowie 75-76)

Lacan’s subject is without "subject-matter" because it is a bona fide signifier whose "matter" is the irretrievable loss of a sense of wholeness. "Represented by a signifier for another signifier, […] the subject is an effect of language" (Evans 196) which is unsignifiable: "no signifier can signify the subject" (Evans 187); it can be represented as an effect of the signifying chain, but never tied down to any stable content. As such, the subject is a necessary epistemological category made available to humans by virtue of the sophistication of our thought processes. This sophistication allows us to conceive of presence and absence not only as existential conditions, but also as temporally-bound conditions of a given entity. More importantly, this sophistication of consciousness prompts us to articulate this knowledge through a system of signification whose first principle is the absence of that about which we speak.

Though I have laid this relationship out as a diachronic process in which conception precedes articulation, fidelity to the Lacanian model of the symbolic order prompts me to point out that such diachrony is impossible. Rather, the conception of presence and absence as variable attributes of the same object is part and parcel of the accession to the symbolic order; the oscillation between presence and absence is inconceivable outside the symbolic order and the symbolic order is inconceivable without the dialectic of presence and absence. The irony of this situation is that the naming of an object is necessarily also a process of negating it, of insisting on its irremediable inadequacy even in the face of its actuality: "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing" (Ecrits 104). In adherence to a strictly Hegelian conception of the dialectic, Lacan maintains that the very act of predication (i.e. any symbolisation whatever) is necessarily an act of negation. The process of saying what something is is simultaneously the process of saying what it is not: "P is Q" deprives P of its essentiality as it becomes something other than P; it is negated in favor of one of its accidents. Further, no accumulation of the accidents of P (say, an infinite number of Q’s) can ever amount to an exhaustive definition (and hence a full representation) of P. In entering the symbolic, then, the human infant unwittingly abandons the immediate world of objects and re-situates himself or herself in a position of always-already mediated epistemology any retreat from which is impossible.

An inevitable result of the status of the subject in the symbolic order is that it is fundamentally split; it is an effect of signification whose truth is the absence signification seeks to mask: "because the subject is essentially a speaking being (parlêtre), he is inescapably divided, castrated, split" (Evans 196). As a speaking being, the subject is not only a parlêtre but an entity par lettre, one created only by the divisiveness endemic to the process of signification. And as a result of the play of signifiers in the signifying chain, the subject is therefore at base and irreducibly an absence, a lack whose place is determined and whose truth is deferred, delayed, and decoyed by the signifier. That is to say, the subject is no more a present reality, a manipulable object or entity in the world, than is any other signifier. Originating in this discovery that the shadow of absence falls across all presence, the subject is the pre-eminent fiction by which the signifying chain covers up the void which both structures the symbolic and which it strives to preclude. As such, the subject is all the more closely aligned with this organising originary absence, not merely as one signifier among many, but as their truth as well.

This truth is perpetually covered over by the flux of signification, however, enforcing the subject’s mobility in the symbolic order, a mobility that thoroughly temporalises the subject and sets the stage for the introduction of the driving force behind its evasive and fleeting existence: "the subject comes into being at the point of intersection between an irrecoverable past and an unattainable future; its structure is that of a ceaseless cross-stitching, in language, between what-is-no-longer-the-case and what-is-not-yet-the-case" (Bowie 184). A version of being in its past and future tenses, the subject is not only always-already elsewhere, but also always-already elsewhen. This temporality is both inextricable from existence in the signifying chain and necessary to its perpetuation; it is what allows the subject to organise his or her experiences in the world in such a way as to retain a sense of order, logic, and meaning. Further, it reveals both how the subject compulsively participates in the signifying chain and how it understands its own need to be forever on the move.


subject (sujet)

The term 'subject' is present from the very earliest of Lacan's psychoanalytic writings (see Lacan, 1932), and from 1945 on it occupies a central part in Lacan's work. This is a distinctive feature of Lacan's work, since the term does not constitute part of Freud's theoretical vocabulary, but is more associated with philosophical, legal and linguistic discourses.

In Lacan's pre-war papers, the term 'subject' seems to mean no more than 'human being' (see Ec, 75); the term is also used to refer to the analysand (Ec, 83).

In 1945, Lacan distinguishes between three kinds of subject. Firstly, there is the impersonal subject, independent of the other, the pure grammatical subject, the noetic subject, the 'it' of 'it is known that.' Secondly, there is the anonymous reciprocal subject who is completely equal to and substitutable for any other, and who recognises himself in equivalence with the other.

Thirdly, there is the personal subject, whose uniqueness is constituted by an act of self-affirmation (Ec, 207-8). It is always this third sense of the subject, the subject in his uniqueness, that constitutes the focus of Lacan's work.

In 1953, Lacan establishes a distinction between the subject and the EGO which will remain one of the most fundamental distinctions throughout the rest of his work. Whereas the ego is part of the imaginary order, the subject is part of the symbolic. Thus the subject is not simply equivalent to a conscious sense of agency, which is a mere illusion produced by the ego, but to the unconscious; Lacan's 'subject' is the subject of the unconscious. Lacan argues that this distinction can be traced back to Freud: '[Freud] wrote Das Ich und das Es in order to maintain this fundamental distinction between the true subject of the unconscious and the ego as constituted in its nucleus by a series of alienating identifications' (E, 128). Although psychoanalytic treatment has powerful effects on the ego, it is the subject, and not the ego, on which psychoanalysis primarily operates.

Lacan plays on the various meanings of the term 'subject'. In linguistics and logic, the subject of a proposition is that about which something is predicated (see Lacan, 1967: 19), and is also opposed to the 'object'. Lacan plays on the philosophical nuances of the latter term to emphasise that his concept of the subject concerns those aspects of the human being that cannot (or must not) be objectified (reified, reduced to a thing), nor be studied in an 'objective' way.

'What do we call a subject'? Quite precisely, what in the development of objectivation, is outside of the object' (Sl, 194).

References to language come to dominate Lacan's concept of the subject from the mid-1950s on. He distinguishes the subject of the statement from the subject of the ENUNCIATION to show that because the subject is essentially a speaking being (parlÍtre), he is inescapably divided, castrated, SPLIT. In the early 1960s Lacan defines the subject as that which is represented by a signifier for another signifier; in other words, the subject is an effect of language (Ec, 835).

Besides its place in linguistics and logic, the term 'subject' also has philosophical and legal connotations. In philosophical discourse, it denotes an individual self-consciousness, whereas in legal discourse, it denotes a person who is under the power of another (e.g. a person who is subject to the sovereign). The fact that the term possesses both these meanings means that it perfectly illustrates Lacan's thesis about the determination of consciousness by the symbolic order; 'the subject is a subject only by virtue of his subjection to the field of the Other' (S2, 188, translation modified). The term also functions in legal discourse to designate the support of action; the subject is one who can be held responsible for his AcTs.

The philosophical connotations of the term are particularly emphasised by Lacan, who links it with Descartes's philosophy of the COGITO: in the term subject . . . I am not designating the living substratum needed by this phenomenon of the subject, nor any sort of substance, nor any being possessing knowledge in his pathos . . . nor even some incarnated logos, but the Cartesian subject, who appears at the moment when doubt is recognised as certainty. (S11, 126)

The fact that the symbol of the subject, S, is a homophone of the Freud's term Es (see ID) illustrates that for Lacan, the true subject is the subject of the unconscious. In 1957 Lacan strikes through this symbol to produce the symbol S, the 'barred subject', thus illustrating the fact that the subject is essentially divided.


The term ‘subject’ is present from the very earliest of Lacan’s psychoanalytic writings, and from 1945 on it occupies a central part in Lacan’s work. This is a distinctive feature of Lacan’s work, since the term does not constitue part of Freud’s thoeretical vocabulary, but is more associated with philosopical, legal and linguistic discourses.


The Cogito

The Introduction of Zizek' s The Ticklish Subject begins with his assertion that' a spectre is haunting Western academia. . ., the spectre of the Cartesian subject' (TTS: 1). The Cartesian subject, or coBita as it is also known, is, he proclaims, constantly liable to attempts to exorcize it from contemporary thought by New Age obscurantists, postmodern deconstructionists, Habermasians, Heideggerians, cognitive scientists, Deep Ecologists, post-Marxists and feminists. In short, just about every reviles the cogito. Aficionados of ZiZek' s contrary mode of thought will, therefore, not be surprised to learn that, in opposition to all these theoretical factions, he fully endorses the model of the Cartesian s~jecL All of which raises the question: what is the coBita and why does everyone (except Zizek) seem to want done with it?

Although the idea for it was originally proposed by Saint Augustine (354--430), one of the founders of the Christian Church, the caBita in the form that we know it was first advanced by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher, mathematician and soldier who is often referred to as the Father of Modern Philosophy. Descartes' starting point for the caBita was a cold winter's day. It was so icy that he climbed into a very large stove to keep himself warm and stayed there all day. During his confinement Descartes commenced upon the philosophic procedure which is named after him: Cartesian doubt. The point of this procedure was to establish what could really be known.

Descartes began by isolating the evidence of his senses: was he really sitting by a fire in his dressing gown? He concluded that he could not be sure. He had often dreamt of just such a scenario and, in his dream, this had seemed real to him. However, even if the dream itself were an illusion, what of the concepts employed by the dream, the mathematical concepts such as shape, number and size which apparently match those of reality? Descartes concedes that although these may seem to be correct, there is a possibility that they are all the invention of an evil genius designed to fool him. If this were the case though, Descartes argues that he could not be deceived if he did not exist in some form. Given that his body may be an illusion, Descartes concludes that at the very least his thought must exist, if it is to be deceived:

While I decided thus to think that everything was false, it followed necessarily that I who thought thus must be something; and observing that this truth: / think, therefore / am, was so certain and so evident that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were not capable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

(Descartes 1968: 53-54)

This phrase and first principle - 'I think, therifare I am' or 'coBita, erBa sum' - is what the term' caBita' designates.

The Cogito and the Post-Structuralist

There are many ways of interpreting the caBita, but we are interested here only in two - the post-structuralist version and Zizek's version. For the post-structuralists, the caBita is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the 'individual', and it is regarded by them as the spoilt brat of philosophy. T individual, as the name ~ggests,~ indivisib~e. In our day-to-day lives, we tend to think of ourselves as individual ause we feel we are com lete in charge o ourselves and not subject to the whims 0 outside forces. When Descartes states 'I who thought thus must be something', we understand that 'I', the 'I' of the caBita, to be an individual. It is the 'I' that does the thinking - the thoughts belong to him rather than him to the thoughts. In other words, the 'I' of the caBita is the master of itself. A!:.lndividual is therefore self-transparent - nothing impedes its understanding of itself because it is In total control and has total autonomy over its actions. There are no dark banana skins of the soul ~tO slip up the psyche, there are no words which threaten to betray the meaning of their speaker, and there are no gusts of history which might suddenly blow the individual from its perch. The world of the individual is an immaculate, windless, danger-free environment.

It is, therefore, a state of perfection. Its main advantage is that nothing impinges upon the autonomy of the individual. Every person, as the saying goes, is an island - self-sufficient, independent and free to do what it wills. Its main disadvantage, however, is that nothing impinges upon the autonomy of the individual. Every person is an island - self-sufficient, independent and free to do what it wills. In other words, the very features of the individual which seem to confer upon it such blessings are also those which blight it. This is because the individual conceived in this way is utterly subjective; everything remains within its dominion and subject to its control. There is no objectivity at all.

If this seems merely to be a philosophical problem, the consequences for this model of subjectivity are equally compelling within 'reality' as well. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters Df themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not

Three Meanings

Furthermore, the very term "subject" has three main meanings: subject as an autonomous agent; subject as this same agent submitted ("subjected") to some power; topic, "subject matter." It is not difficult to recognize in these three meanings the triad of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary: pure subject as the "answer of the real"; a subject of the signifier, submitted to - caught into - the symbolic order; the imaginary stuff that provides the matter, the "content," of the subject.[1]

See Also


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View.
Subject, 65, 69, 127, 136
analysis and, 11, 13, 16-17
analyst's discourse and, 16-17, 126
castration and, 7, 72, 77, 99
cause and, 109
fantasy and, 88
hysteric's discourse and, 16-17
knowledge and, 16-17, 67, 126
logical time of, 142
represented by a signifier to another signifier, 49-50, 142
temporal status, 142
topology of, 11
unconscious and, 21, 37, 96, 98,142
university discourse and, 16-17
See also Barred subject