Slippage of the Signified Under the Signifier: Unstable Identity in Language
Saussure's radical observation that signifieds ( ) are linked only arbitrarily to signifiers (tree, arbol), defined by the structure of a given language system, led him also to notice that the signified is not stable, but the signified slides under the signifier because that signifier requires other signifiers to define the original arbitrary one (e.g., "deciduous broad-leafed trees of the genus Quercus or Lithocarpus"). Each of those signifiers ("deciduous" and "broad-leafed" and "trees" and, yes, even "of") yield signifieds are themselves caught up in the slippage under their signifieds, a process that could possibly slide all the way to pure meaninglessness. (Falstaff to Prince Hall, "What is 'honor' but a breath?") Because human identities are formed by language-conditioned interactions with family and the wider culture, identity itself may be described as unstable because it is vulnerable to that slippage. Lucille Clifton's poem, which Tyson analyzes while explaining New Criticism, may be understood as an attempt to mediate such a slippage of identity.
One of Derrida's unlikely allies, Jaques Lacan, a French Freudian psychoanalyst, gave a series of lectures in which he reapplied Saussurian linguistics to Freud and launched a new theory of personality. In Lacan's appropriation of Deconstruction, we are "normal" (i.e., merely neurotic) because our minds refuse to notice most of the slippage Derrida insisted was going on. Those who could not resist seeing the slippage fell into psychosis, which presents verbal symptoms known, for instance, as "word salad," "clang associations," "knight's move" thinking, "neologism" (coining new words), etc.. Thus, language's identity-structuring power could be used to explain losses of structure, as well. This is an excerpt from "Lacan dot com"'s summary of the 1955-56 seminar on "Psychoses":
"The Saussurian opposition between signifier and signified leads to the radical separation of the two chains, until they are tied through anchoring points, points de capiton. These are points at which 'signifier and signified are knotted together.' Despite the continual slippage of the signified under the signifier, there are nevertheless in the neurotic subject certain points of attachment between signifier and signified where the slippage is temporarily halted. A certain number of these points 'are necessary for a person to be called normal' and 'when they are not established or when they give way' the result is psychosis. In the psychotic experience 'the signifier and the signified present themselves in a completely divided form.' Thus the language phenomena most notable in psychosis are disorders of language: the presence of such disorders is a necessary condition for its diagnosis: holophrases and the extensive use of neologisms (new words or already existing ones which the psychotic redefines). These language disorders are due to the psychotic's lack of a sufficient number of anchoring points: the psychotic experience is characterized by a constant slippage of the signifier under the signified, which is a disaster for signification. Later, Lacan will posit that there is a continual 'cascade of reshapings of the signifier from which the increasing disaster of the imaginary proceeds, until the level is reached at which signifier and signified are stabilized in the delusional metaphor.' Thus 'the nucleus of psychosis has to be linked to a rapport between the subject and the signifier in its most formal dimension, in its dimension as pure signifier. If the neurotic inhabits language, the psychotic is inhabited, possessed by language.'"
For more of Lacan's thought, read Ecríts, or for a set of summaries of some of his seminar topics, see Lacan dot com.