The concept, from the Greek “semeion,” “distinctive mark, sign,” was adapted by Bulgarian linguist, psychoanalyst, and sometime feminist Julia Kristeva from “semiology,” Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s “science of signs,” the study of the life of signs in a society, developed independently and at about the same time, around the turn of the 20th century, in somewhat similar terms, by American pragmatist philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, who called it “semiotics.” Semiotics focuses on “signs,” minimal meaningful elements, and the codes or “grammar” governing their selection or combination into utterances (so that one might speak of a “grammar” of the “language of traffic lights”). “Structuralism,” a dominant critical method in the humanities, arts, and some social sciences from the 1950s through the 1980s, drew on the methodology of semiotics for the analysis of social phenomena as “discourses” structured by a grammar; discursive systems it analyzed included genres, individual poems or stories, menus, Hollywood cinema, and fashion statements, among others. Articulating psychoanalysis with structuralism (including Belgian anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist work on the language of kinship systems), French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorized that there was a grammar of the unconscious.

Formed by the Symbolic law condensing rules concerning sexual relationships and erotic desire with rules concerning language and its discrimination of identities and differences, the unconscious was characterized by what Sigmund Freud termed the “primary processes” organizing its functioning, “condensation” and “displacement,” which were similar to metaphor and metonymy in the “secondary processes” associated with consciousness and much studied by structuralist linguists and literary critics. Like Lacan, Kristeva put psychoanalysis in dialogue with structuralism and the later poststructuralist critiques of it; however, she uses the term “semiotic” to refer not to rule-governed relations between signs but rather to uncoded and unstable pre-signifying differences that are prior to, prepare for, and problematize the systematic and enduring distinctions signs articulate in the Symbolic order, the mode of relating to reality that Lacan associates with the resolution of the castration complex and the consequent accession to language, a sexed identity, and regulated exchanges (a community’s ordering of identities and relationships).

Whereas the Symbolic binds drive energies (“libido”) in the secondary processes linked to consciousness and the reality principle that restricts pleasure or jouissance, the semiotic comprises rhythmic articulations of light, gesture, and sound (primarily the latter, such as infant laughter, babble, and echolalias) through which polymorphous libido is loosely channeled into preliminary and shifting differences projected into the sensorial continuum, allowing for greater mobility and discharge of impulses directed toward the mother in the pre-Oedipal relation, a fusional space of mother-and-child which Kristeva terms the “chora.” The semiotic is unified and organized in a fashion that anticipates the Symbolic in two key “thetic” moments that establish an “identification of the subject and its object as preconditions of propositionality,” which characterizes the realm of signification. The first is the mirror stage that inaugurates the Imaginary, when the baby invests libido in the image of itself and thus posits a primordial ego that distinguishes it from others (though it continues to confuse self and others until the resolution of the castration complex) and serves as the “Imaginary phallus” the mother is thought to lack and desire. At about the same time, the baby also begins to appropriate signifiers from the demands of the mother and use them for its own demands, which furthers the process of separating itself as a subject from objects through representation and also assigns provisional qualities to the ideal ego and Imaginary phallus, though such preliminary signifiers lack the stable signifieds of mature language use (they begin as rudimentary vocal oppositions like the “ooh” and “ah” that Freud reports his toddler grandson Ernst attached to the comings and goings of his mother).

The second, and definitive, thetic moment occurs when the child resolves the Oedipal complex by resolving the castration complex, separating from the Imaginary phallus that would satisfy the desire of the mother, which made the baby her extension, by recognizing instead that the father has the Symbolic phallus the mother desires. The semiotic is repressed as the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal phallic drives are finally hierarchized and unified under the primacy of the genital and the social regulation of object relations, though it finds an outlet in experimental art in particular, where reified meanings and identities are called into question through a semiotic play with uncoded but rhythmic relations between colors, shapes, gestures, and sounds that disrupt the logic of grammar, the body, and object relations. In developing the notion of the semiotic, Kristeva, like some of Freud’s early 20th century female disciples and other feminists interested in psychoanalysis, ascribes an importance to pre-Oedipal object relations with the archaic mother, and the pre-phallic drives directed towards her, that supplements the emphasis in Freud and Lacan on the role in subject formation of the father, language, law, the phallus, and castration.

The theory of the semiotic also complicates Lacan’s claim about a grammar of the unconscious, since Kristeva links it to the pre-verbal, dyadic, and narcissistic relation with the mother, involving color, gesture, and sound, rather than to the Symbolic, quaternary subject-object relations arising the in the wake of the paternal intervention in that relation, which are mediated by language as the vehicle of substitutive, compromise formations associated with the restricted mobility and discharge of libido in the interests of sociality. The semiotic is closer to the body, the senses, and the drives than is Symbolic language, as with abjection, Kristeva’s other contribution to theorizing the archaic pre-Oedipal, and an engagement with either can unsettle and restructure the defensive reifications of the Symbolic and Imaginary, playing as revolutionary a role as a destabilization of the sociopolitical or economic sphere.

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